D2Football.com's National Championship Preview

December 15th, 2023 11:00am

D2Football.com's National Championship Preview

By Chuck Bitner, national columnist 

The two most dominant teams in Division II football in 2023 will face off for the national championship on Saturday afternoon. Colorado School of Mines, undefeated champions of the RMAC return to McKinney for the second straight year, looking to take the final step on the championship journey. Harding, the unbeaten champions of the Great American Conference make their first ever appearance in the national finals. A first time champion will be crowned and one team will complete the undefeated season at 15-0. 

Let’s look at our national finalists.

Colorado School of Mines Team Profile

Nickname: Orediggers 

Location: Golden, Colorado

Conference: Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC)

Record: 14-0

Coach: Pete Sterbick, 1st season (14-0)

Results | Stats | Roster 

2023 Accomplishments: 

  • RMAC Champions (fifth straight) 

  • Super Region Four Champions (third straight)

  • 14 of 28 first-team All-RMAC selections

  • Swept the RMAC offense, defense and special teams player of the year selections

  • Upshaw Award winner: OL Levi Johnson

  • Harlon Hill Finalist: QB John Matocha (defending award winner)

Five Players to Watch

#3 WR Max McLeod

#10 QB John Matocha

#14 WR Flynn Schiele

#29 DB Jackson Zimmerman

#46 LB Nolan Reeve

Path to the playoffs: The Orediggers kicked off the season with two of the toughest out of conference games in the entire country. The season opener delivered a huge win over Grand Valley State, with Mines hitting a game-winning field goal with just 0:02 on the game clock. That was followed by a hard-earned road win at Angelo State. After that, the Orediggers were rarely (okay, never) challenged in conference play. Over the course of the nine-game RMAC schedule, Mines won by an average score of 56-9. Only three RMAC opponents put up more than seven points against one of the best defenses in D2 and the closest conference game they played was decided by 25 points. 

Post season play: As the no. 1 seed in SR4, the Orediggers were idle in round one. They completely dismantled a very good NSIC champ Augustana in round two and overcame a sluggish first half to beat a gutsy Central Washington 38-14 in the quarterfinal. In the semifinal matchup with Kutztown, there were a few struggles for the offense but the defense maintained control of the game throughout in a 35-7 win. 

Oredigger fact….The fewest points scored and most points allowed all season actually happened in the same game: The season-opening 31-28  win over Grand Valley. 

Harding Team Profile

Nickname: Bisons

Conference: Great American Conference (GAC)

Record: 14-0 

Coach: Paul Simmons, 7th season (64-14)

Results | Stats | Roster 

Notable accomplishments

  • Second undefeated season in school history

  • GAC Champions

  • Super Region Three Champions

  • 11 first-team All-GAC selections, 5 second-team selections

  • GAC coach of the year, defensive player of the year

  • Lead all NCAA teams in rushing yards per game

  • Set Division II record for team rushing yards in a season 

Five players to watch

#7 RB Braden Jay

#15 QB Cole Keylon

#20 DB Ty Dugger

#26 RB Blake Delacruz

#32 DE Nathaniel Wallace

Path to the playoffs: You might think Colorado Mines’ conference schedule was about as dominant as it gets, but Harding is right there with them. How dominant? In the Bisons’ 11-game regular season, not one team was able to get within 10 points. None. The closest game Harding had all year was an 11-point win at Henderson State (an eventual playoff team) in week four.  The next closest margin of victory was a tight 31 point win over Ouachita Baptist. The Bisons had four shutouts and held three others to 10 points or less. 

Post season play: The Bisons have already eliminated possibly the best offense and best defense in the tournament. In round two, they blocked a PAT in the final minute to beat Central Missouri 35-34. In the SR3 final, they prevailed 7-6 over Grand Valley in one of the best defensive struggles we saw all year. In a semifinal match that we expected to be competitive, they ran through Lenoir-Rhyne and raced away with a 55-14 win. 

Bison fact…if Harding can hit their average of 404 rushing yards, they will become the first team in the history of college football to rush for 6,000 yards in a single season. 

Breaking it down

There are no two teams that deserve it more and no team has done more to earn their place in the title bout. I have to say right off the top, in this era of college football, it is absolutely wild that the team that is dead last in all of Division II in passing yards is going to play for the national championship. That’s not an exaggeration. There were 161 teams in Division II this year and Harding was 161st in passing yards per game. Of course, that’s exactly how they would want it. What would you expect from a team that averages less than four pass attempts per game? The flip side is that the Bisons were first in rushing yards per game. By a looooong way. Harding averages 404 rush yards per game and that’s 112 yards better than second place.  It adds some extra excitement to this game. A lot of us who are over the age of 40 grew up watching run-heavy offenses of varrying styles, but given the current trends, I thought it was unlikley we would ever seen a team with Harding's offensive scheme play for a championship again. 

When Harding has the ball

There is no guess work around what they’re going to do. There will be nuances to the blocking schemes and likely a few things that haven’t been on film before but we know what Harding is going to do. Their flexbone offense combines bruising physicality with explosiveness to generate the number one rushing offense in all of college football. They’ll have a few plays in the package to try to sneak a receiver open and catch the defense off guard, but in a perfect world, Harding would not throw the ball at all. There isn’t one player that stands out on the stat sheets and that’s by design. The Bisons have a large cast of contributors. On most days, Blake Delacruz will get the most carries. The tough inside runner has over 1,200 yards on the season and almost never gets stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Braden Jay has been a huge weapon in the playoff run and Jalen Spicer adds explosiveness on toss sweeps. QB Cole Keylon is responsible for running the Bisons’ sophisticated offense and is also the team’s third leading rusher and second leading scorer. 

Harding’s offense is a lot to account for. A defense doesn’t have to shut it down to win, but they do have to get off the field a few times each half. If Harding has sustained drives that end in points, it allows them to dictate the pace of the game and shorten it. They will be very aggressive on fourth downs. Don’t expect to see a punt any time Harding is in plus territory. That puts pressure on the opposing offense to maximize every one of their possessions against an exceptional Harding defense. That said, Mines has the defense to slow down Harding enough to win. I’m not saying they will, but they can. It takes a defensive line that can bottle up the middle and occupy blockers so the linebackers and defensive backs can flock to the ball. That’s how Grand Valley was able to be successful. Mines’ personnel is different from Grand Valley’s but they have a defensive front that can do the job and I expect to see a lot of Nolan Reeve, Jaden Healy and Adrian Moreno flying to the ball. 

When Mines has the ball

As we’ve discussed all year, the challenge for a defense going against Mines is that there are so many things the Orediggers do well. We could have an endless discussion about how special quarterback John Matocha is. I could recite all the superlatives and honors, but it should suffice to say he will walk away from this game having concluded one of the greatest careers of any quarterback that’s ever played college football. That’s the guy who will be running the offense that also features first team All American Max McLeod at wide receiver. McLeod was not nominated for the Harlon Hill Award because Matocha was the team’s nominee, but in my opinion, he’s one of the five best players in the country, regardless of position. The Bisons can try to minimize his impact, which is something Kutztown tried to do, but that will open things up for Flynn Shiele who had a huge day in the semifinals. The running game remains strong with Noah Roper and Landon Walker combing for nearly 1,700 rush yards. I’ve yet to mention the offensive line, which is one of the best in the nation, led by Upshaw Award winner (nation’s top senior lineman) Levi Johnson. 

It all sounds pretty scary but Harding certainly won’t be intimated. The Bisons have proven they can take down any type of high powered offense, from Ouachita to Henderson State to Central Missouri and Lenoir-Rhyne. All different types off offenses that score a lot of points. None had enough for the Bisons’ D. To beat Mines., they have to be able to bring pressure and keep Matocha in the pocket. Kutztown and Central Washington had a little success with that and I think Harding can sustain for longer than those two defenses did. The Bisons are one of the best in the nation at stopping the run and the pass. It starts with a physical defensive front. There are some hard working grunts in the trenches like Tirrell Johnson and Wesley Coleman who may not have their names mentioned a lot, but they’ll be doing work occupying that Mines O line so Dre Hall, Nathaniel Wallace and Clark Griffin can get to the ball. In watching the Bisons over the past few weeks, the things that stood out were 1) how successful they are with a four man rush 2) the blitzes almost always get home and 3) they keep the quarterback in the pocket very well. If they can keep Matocha from getting outside the pocket to extend plays and work his magic, they’re going to have a really good chance to win this game. 

Who wins?

No matter how it shakes out, this is a fantastic matchup for our national championship game and I can't wait to see it. Remember that the Inside D2Football crew will have a pregame show live from the stadium, beginning two hours before kickoff. We will have much more to say about the matchup, visit with some special guests and reveal our picks. The game will air live on ESPNU at 1pm, eastern.

Thanks for reading. Truly, thank you. It takes a lot to pull together material for a game of this magnitude and if you took the time to read all of it, I appreciate it, but more importantly, the teams and players would appreciate it. They deserve the recognition and that's what we're here for. Hopefully we'll see some of you at the game!

Questions, suggestions, comments, complaints? Email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @D2Chuck