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As many of you know, I was a big advocate for moving the national championship game. I felt the game had run its course in Florence and it was time for a fresh start somewhere else. That fresh start ended up being at Sporting Park in Kansas City where fans attending and watching at home on television should be treated to a great event.

However, as the last few days tick down to this year*s championship at the new venue, I can*t help but feel a bit nostalgic about the 28 years that the game was played in Florence. There were many tremendous championship games played at Braly Municipal Stadium and some great memories created for many teams and fans. The game and events surrounding the game were always well coordinated. Personally I will miss traveling to Florence and seeing all of the great people in that town, a few which have become good friends.

One of the things I always respected about Florence is that they did the very best they could to be more than just a host for a game: They also attempted to make D2 football as special as possible by introducing the Harlon Hill Trophy and hosting the D2 Football Hall of Fame. Hopefully Kansas City- and any other future host for that matter- can take some lessons from Florence on how to make the entire weekend special.

Semifinal Observations

-Minnesota State was just too big, strong and talented for Concord to hang with. The Mavericks also played a flawless game as they got up early and then controlled the football which never allowed the Mountain Lions a chance.

-The diversity of the Minnesota State passing game is what really makes the Mavericks a difficult team to defend. Over the last two weeks six different Maverick receivers have been on the receiving end of Ricky Lloyd touchdown passes. Lloyd has a very strong arm and throws an accurate ball, especially on the mid-range passes.

-Colorado State-Pueblo scored points on the only two real opportunities they had the entire game. Meanwhile, West Georgia was 0-3 in the red zone with two missed field goals and a critical interception thrown in the fourth quarter. I felt UWG carried the play for the most part but you just can*t come away empty on that many scoring opportunities in a big game.

-The decision by UWG coach Will Hall to go for it on 4th-and-7 from the CSU-Pueblo 35 early in the 4th quarter was a bad one in my opinion because of how the game was being played. UWG had a 7-3 lead at the time and the Thunderwolves hadn*t done much offensively since their opening drive. The stop energized CSU-Pueblo and led to their loan touchdown of the game on the ensuing drive. A punt in that situation would have ensured that the Thunderwolves had to drive at least 80 yards to score.

Harlon Hill Trophy

The winner of the award will be announced via video at 3 PM Eastern on Friday. A banquet honoring the winner will be held in January in Florence. As I mentioned last week, I find the exclusion of Azusa Pacific running back Terrell Watson from the list of finalists to be very unfortunate. In my opinion, he should easily have been one of the top three overall vote getters.

Picking a winner is easy for me this year: I feel the award should go to Ferris State junior quarterback Jason Vander Laan. I have been saying all year that I feel Vander Laan is a special talent and his performance and statistics back that up. Vander Laan completed 67% of his passes for 2381 yards and 30 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1466 yards and 20 more touchdowns.

National Championship Game
Minnesota State (14-0) vs Colorado State-Pueblo (13-1)

Location: Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS
TV: ESPN2 at 4 PM Eastern

These two teams are both making their first appearance in a national championship game. But both programs have been building towards this for the last several seasons and have had to endure their share of playoff disappointment along the way. It*s always fun to see programs that aspire to reach a championship level finally get a chance in the spotlight.

Minnesota State reminds me very much of an old school NCC team with their physical play on both sides of the ball. The Maverick offensive line is a talented, veteran group and all five starters weigh more than 290 pounds. Running back Connor Thomas is a punishing runner and the Mavericks will play two different quarterbacks that have some running ability as well. Ricky Lloyd is a D-I transfer that led the state of California in passing as a senior in high school and it shows with his strong arm and pocket presence. Freshman Nick Pierucinni is a talented runner that is also very capable of throwing the football. Another D-I transfer- receiver Dorian Buford- is the big play threat in the passing game with 15 touchdown receptions this year.

Defensively the Mavericks play a 4-3 led by All-America defensive end Joshua Gordon (17.5 sacks) and a pair of 300 pound defensive tackles in Bryan Keys and Barry Ballinger. The back end of the MSU defense doesn*t possess great speed but they are always assignment sharp and tackle very well. Free safety Nathan Hancock is great at reading plays and puts himself in position to intercept passes.

Colorado State-Pueblo is also a run first team with a bowling ball of a running back in 5*8" 196 pound Cameron McDondle. The Thunderwolves like to pound the ball with McDondle to set up quarterback Chris Bonner throwing the football. Bonner is big (6*7") and has a strong arm but he isn*t real mobile and has been inconsistent with his accuracy at times this year. The offensive line has three all-conference performers on it, but the interior isn*t real big, which is a concern against the size MSU has at the defensive tackle positions. Wide receivers Kiernan Duncan and Paul Browning are both playmakers in the passing game.

Defensively, the Thunderwolves are very strong. All-America defensive end Darius Allen is the key player, but this is a very talented group with seven first team All-RMAC performers on it. Cornerbacks C.J. Roberts and Stephan Dickens have combined for 14 interceptions. As a team the Thunderwolves have forced 40 turnovers, have 53 sacks and have scored seven defensive touchdowns. The linebackers are fairly quick but undersized so it remains to be seen how they will hold up against a power offense like MSU.

Players to Watch for Minnesota State:

8 QB Ricky Lloyd: 1629 yards, 20 touchdown passes, 171 pass efficiency rating
5 RB Connor Thomas: 1338 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns
15 WR Dorian Buford: 1007 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns
95 DE Joshua Gordon: 17.5 sacks
33 LB Tyler Henderson: 117 tackles, 4.5 sacks
4 FS Nathan Hancock: 69 tackles, 6 interceptions

Players to Watch for CSU-Pueblo:

12 QB Chris Bonner: 3100 passing yards, 29 touchdowns
30 RB Cameron McDondle: 1901 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns
81 WR Paul Browning: 552 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns
3 DE Darius Allen: 14 sacks
4 CB Stephan Dickens: 77 tackles, 7 interceptions, 631 yards on punt returns
5 CB C.J. Roberts: 7 interceptions

Keys to the Game for Minnesota State:

-Keep chipping away on offense. The Mavericks are big and strong up front and running back Connor Thomas is a physical, downhill runner. When you watch MSU play, those two and three yard runs in the first half tend to turn into eight and ten yard runs in the second half. I think the Mavericks can wear down the CSU-Pueblo defense if they keep pounding with the running game.

-Control the CSU-Pueblo running game. If the Mavericks can slow down Cameron McDondle, then they will make the CSU-Pueblo offense one-dimensional and they aren*t very effective when they can*t set up the pass with the run.

-Be efficient on 3rd down. As I mentioned above, the Maverick running game is more of the chip away variety which leads to many 3rd down and short opportunities. If MSU can convert on those as they did last week they will keep the CSU-Pueblo defense on the field and start to wear them down.

Keys to the Game for CSU-Pueblo

-Make something big happen on special teams. I think the Thunderwolves have an advantage in this area and if they can get a big return or block a punt (something MSU has been susceptible to over the last month) then they can stay in and win the game.

-Get the running game going somehow. The Thunderwolves have to find a way to run the football or they will struggle badly against the MSU defense. McDondle has averaged just four yards per carry over the last two playoff games and I think he will need to be more effective than that for CSU-Pueblo to score points.

-Win the field position battle. I don*t expect there to be a lot of 80 yard drives in this game. But MSU is more complete offensively so I think the Mavericks will eventually win the game if the field position is roughly equal. Last week the Thunderwolves forced West Georgia to start five drives from inside the 20 yard line and I think they will need to do something similar in this game.

Prediction:

I think MSU is the better team, particularly on offense. It took the Mavericks a game and a half to really get going offensively in the playoffs, but they have since scored 81 points in their last six quarters. In contrast, the Thunderwolves have had increasing difficulty scoring points as the playoffs have gone on. In their last six quarters they have scored just 17 points, with just one offensive touchdown.

That said, the Thunderwolves have a very good defense and they play with the kind of resolve that will keep them right in the thick of this game. Like I said earlier, if they can get a couple of turnovers and do something big on special teams they can win this game. However, MSU is more diverse and dynamic offensively and I think the overall physicality of MSU prevails as the game goes on. Minnesota State 24 Colorado State-Pueblo 13

Mailbag

[Q] Why not get out of the regional playoff structure and just let the best 24 teams play?

Ben

[A] I have said for years that I would prefer a system that more resembles what D3 does: Each conference champion would get a bid and then select the remainder of the field nationally. After the selections are made, regionalize the bracket so that travel could be reduced.

That said; the regional structure is not going away. And a pretty good argument could be made that it would be next to impossible to pick a bracket nationally when more and more conferences are going to the insular scheduling model. At the very least what needs to happen is that they find a way to equalize the number of teams in each region and get each of the four power conferences (NSIC, MIAA, GSC, GLIAC) in separate regions for competitive equity. If that was done and we went to seven playoff participants per region it would take away many of the complaints that people currently have.

[Q] Another year and another blowout of a Super Region One team in the semifinals. If you put Concord in the NSIC and had them play Mankato*s schedule, how many wins do you think they would have had?

Alex

[A] I think they probably would have gone about 8-3 playing MSU*s schedule. Outside of Sioux Falls and Augustana there really weren*t any teams on MSU*s regular season schedule that gave them trouble. I was impressed with Concord*s speed on offense and I think they would have scored some points against teams with lesser defenses than MSU.

Contact Me

Feel free to contact me at with any comments or criticisms or if you have a question you would like answered in the Mailbag.

 

 
         
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