The Associated Press
FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State's Travis Beck didn't hesitate when asked how fellow linebacker Grant Olson could top last week's record-setting, 29-tackle effort in a playoff victory over Wofford.
"He'll probably break it again," Beck said.
A crazy notion, perhaps, but Olson should be the center of attention again Friday night in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal against visiting Georgia Southern, like Wofford a triple-option team that runs the ball almost all the time.
Olson, a 6-foot, 223-pound junior from Plymouth, Minn., cracked a wide smile when asked if he enjoys playing an option team.
"For me, yes. For other guys, not so much," Olson said. "I know the defensive line doesn't exactly enjoy taking on blocks the entire time. For me, you get to play the run and tackle people. It's a lot of fun."
Olson said he was hoping, for the sake of his defensive linemen, that the defending FCS champion Bison (12-1) would play Old Dominion, a passing team, so the players up front would have a chance to do what they enjoy the most — sack the quarterback.
"But unfortunately for them, they don't get to do it," he said.
Georgia Southern leads the country with a rushing average of 409 yards per game. The Southern Conference team has not thrown the ball more than 10 times in a single game and went one contest — against Wofford — without attempting a single pass.
The Eagles (10-3) have a former running back at quarterback in Jerick McKinnon, who leads the team in rushing with 1,736 yards, and ran for 316 yards in one game. They have a running back, Dominque Swope, who has piled up 1,169 yards and 16 touchdowns despite missing three starts with a concussion.
Some believe that the Bison, who rose to prominence in Division II with an option game, dumped that offense because it couldn't work in Division I. Three teams run it in the Southern Conference.
"It works at this level. Georgia Southern has proven that. A number of teams have proven that," NDSU defensive coordinator Chris Klieman said. "It just goes to the old adage, if you can run the football and play defense, you're going to have the chance to win a lot of football games."
The key to defending the Eagles? Olson said the Bison should have a "guy on pitch, guy on quarterback, guy on dive." Klieman said the Bison linebackers need to get a clean shot at the ball carrier and finish their tackles.
"That QB has made a ton of people miss," Klieman said of McKinnon. "And if you make the first guy miss it's a foot race. Not too many people are catching him right now."
Like Wofford, Georgia Southern's offense neutralizes NDSU's most explosive defender, two-time All-American cornerback Marcus Williams. Even though most teams throw away from him, Williams has five interceptions, including one he returned 98 yards for a touchdown.
Olson said Williams has a difficult assignment trying to stay sharp for a surprise pass.
"He has to cover his man every single play. And 65 out of 70 snaps they're not even going to pass the ball so he's running downfield doing nothing," Olson said. "But it's those five other snaps when they throw it deep, he has to be perfect."
The game is a repeat of last year's semifinal in which the Bison defeated the Eagles 35-7 at the Fargodome. Bison head coach Craig Bohl said this year's edition of Georgia Southern is more athletic and explosive, especially at quarterback, than last year.
Conversely, Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken, whose team played Alabama last year, said NDSU is the closest thing to the Crimson Tide he's seen in his three years with the Eagles.
"They've got a great defense," Monken said of the Bison. "They don't hold people to 11 points a game because they have one player. They've got a bunch of guys who play good and they are well-coached."