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Griz to be formidable for No. 1 Sam Houston

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Montana football coach Robin Pflugrad might want to talk to Montana State coach Rob Ash about how to play the only unbeaten team in the FCS, Sam Houston State, in the national semifinals.

On second thought, perhaps Pflugrad will want to ignore what the Bearkats, the nation's No. 1-ranked team and top seed for the playoffs, did on Saturday to the co-champion to Montana in the Big Sky Conference.

The Bearkats were a much more fierce breed than the Bobcats in their 49-13 rout in the quarterfinals.

But as impressive as Sam Houston State was in improving to 13-0, no team has played better in the playoffs than Montana.

The Grizzlies are back, as if they ever went away while missing the playoffs last year following a record 17 straight appearances.

Their 41-14 roll past Central Arkansas in the second round, after they led 31-0 at halftime, might have been superceded by Friday night's 48-10 blasting of Northern Iowa, the Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champion.

But now in the semifinals, the Grizzlies (11-2) have to travel to Huntsville, Texas, to take on a Sam Houston State program that they have knocked out of the playoffs twice, although both times were in Missoula. This will be their 11th trip to the national semifinals.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said. "I watched a little bit of that ball game last night. They were a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. We're going to have to have a great week of preparation in order to be successful playing them next week."

Montana senior linebacker Caleb McSurdy was the Big Sky Conference's defensive player of the year.
Meanwhile, second-year Montana head coach Pflugrad marveled about Sam Houston State: "To be able to run the table in today's world of college football is an amazing feat. That is a credit to Sam Houston's coaches and players.

"They possess tremendous speed, size and play physical football," he added. "They have a very unique scheme on offense which keeps defensive coordinators awake at night.

"When you add the dimensions of a short week to prepare, along with travel, we have a major challenge ahead of us. But we are excited to have this opportunity."

Sam Houston State fans at Bowers Stadium will be impressed with Montana's squad from the moment it steps on the field for pre-game warmups. The Griz still carry themselves like the national power that they have been through the years - confident and talented.

Unlike the Montana State squad that came unglued in the last month - a 36-10 loss to Montana, a 26-25 sneak past New Hampshire and then the demolition in Huntsville - Montana will be the type of Big Sky team that Southland Conference teams are used to seeing in their painful playoff history against the big boys from the Big Sky.

Montana's physicality, starting up front with the likes of offensive tackle Jon Copperud and defensive tackle Bryan Waldhauser, is going to have to wear on the Bearkats, who possess an intimidating edge in speed.

Jabin Sambrano's versatility as a receiver and a returner will help cut into that edge and the Grizzlies' host of runners - Peter Nguyen, Jordan Canada, Dan Moore and quarterback Jordan Johnson - will try to keep the likes of Brian Bell, Richard Sincere, Tim Flanders and the lethal Bearkats offense off the field.

Sam Houston State's winning streak is at an FCS-high 15. Montana's streak is at nine games, and the last five wins have been by at least 25 points.

It should be a classic match-up.

PLAYOFF GAME BALLS

Montana routed Northern Iowa, 48-10, in the FCS quarterfinals as Johnson threw for 196 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown ... Sincere had 203 yards (160 rushing, 43 receiving) on only 13 touches, scoring one touchdown, in Sam Houston State's 49-13 mauling of Montana State ... Quarterback Jaybo Shaw was especially efficient in Georgia Southern's 35-23 win over Maine, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for another while completing 7-of-8 attempts for 116 yards ... Brock Jensen also ran North Dakota State's offense to perfection - 17-for-28 for 174 yards and a touchdown while scoring on both of his two carries - in a 24-0 shutout of Lehigh.

CONFERENCE SCOREBOARD

Big Sky (Montana and Montana State: 3-1 (.750)

Missouri Valley (North Dakota State and Northern Iowa): 3-1 (.750)

Southland (Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas): 3-1 (.750)

Big South (Stony Brook): 1-1 (.500)

Southern (Georgia Southern, Wofford and Appalachian State): 2-2 (.500)

Patriot (Lehigh): 1-1 (.500)

CAA Football (Towson, Old Dominion, New Hampshire, Maine and James Madison): 3-5 (.375)

MEAC (Norfolk State): 0-1 (.000)

Northeast (Albany): 0-1 (.000)

Ohio Valley (Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky): 0-2 (.000)

AROUND THE NATION

Georgia Southern, which visits North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals, is the all-time leader with six FCS championships (1986, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999 and 2000). Montana is tied for fourth with two titles (1995 and 2001). North Dakota State and Sam Houston State have never won FCS crowns ... The team that has rushed for more yards has won 14 of the 16 playoff games. The team that has won the turnover battle has 12 wins and two losses (both of Lehigh's games were a push in turnovers) ... Fans in rival conferences have rejoiced over CAA Football's struggles in the playoffs ... What a tremendous way for Grambling State linebacker Cliff Exama to end his career, an interception with 1:19 remaining to basically seal the Tigers' 16-15 win over Alabama A&M in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game. Even better, what a way for Doug Williams to cap his return to the Tigers' sideline this season ... It's always a bit puzzling when a school takes excess time to fire a head coach after its season. Coastal Carolina's ousting of David Bennett on Friday comes during the important period of on-campus recruiting visits. What was so different on Dec. 9 than, say, Nov. 20? ... To date, 10 FCS schools (not including FBS-bound Massachusetts) are undergoing a change in head coaches, with five having filled the vacancies.

THE PICKS

This Weekend's Record: 4-1 (.800)

Season Record: 588-202 (.744)

X-Projected Winner

All Times ET

NCAA Division I Semifinals

Friday, Dec. 16 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) or Saturday, Dec. 17 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

No. 4 Montana (11-2) at X-No. 1 Sam Houston State (13-0) - Bearkats' speed makes you go gulp.

X-No. 3 Georgia Southern (11-2) at No. 2 North Dakota State (12-1) - Eagles were our preseason pick for the national title.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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