North Dakota State fans know of North Alabama. While the Lions are making their debut in Division I FCS in 2018, the Bison faithful may recall seeing North Alabama in the past. NDSU defeated the Lions in the 1985 Division II championship 35-7. That championship came in a stretch that saw the Bison win four of six national titles from 1983 to 1988.
While that may sour some North Alabama fans, the Lions have also had historic stretches in Division II. To the program’s credit, they have played in five Division II championship games, winning three times. Those three victories came in consecutive seasons in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Thus making North Alabama the only team in Division II history to win the national championship three straight seasons. Their most recent championship appearance in 2016 resulted in a 29-3 loss to familiar foe Northwest Missouri State.
The Lions are coming off a rough 5-5 season in 2017, but have proven viable so far in Division I competition. Their season-opening victory over co-Big Sky champion Southern Utah was certainly a wake-up call. They followed that win up with a victory over a lowly Alabama A&M team last week. Contrary to what last year’s numbers indicate, this is a veteran Lions team with plenty of weapons. Head coach Chris Willis returns 41 lettermen from 2017 including a veteran offensive line and defensive front. While the Bison may prove too strong for North Alabama, this is a far more interesting match-up compared to the Cal Poly opener.
If North Dakota State has one thing to worry about definitively, it’s the pace at which North Alabama plays. The Lions employ an up-tempo spread offense that looks to move the ball up and down the field in rapid time. Hence why the team racked up over 550 yards of total offense against Southern Utah. They did this while only possessing the ball for 30 minutes and 12 seconds of the game. This spread offense is led by junior college transfer Christian Lopez, a dual-threat quarterback by all accounts. He is accompanied by several speedy wide receivers and running backs. This only helps the Lions play fast offensively.
Lopez, who comes to North Alabama from Mesa Community College, tossed 33 touchdowns last season. That mark was second best across all junior college schools. So far this season, he has been impressive as well. Against Southern Utah, he passed for 350 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 112 yards and one touchdown, accumulating 462 yards of total offense in that game.
He struggled a bit against Alabama A&M last weekend, only passing for 146 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, he failed to net any positive yards but rushed for a touchdown. Some of that could be due to an injury he sustained late in the first half of that game. Either way, that puts his total yard count at 591 through two games, he is also responsible for seven Lions touchdowns.
Lopez was relatively on par in relation to Southern Utah’s defense. The Thunderbirds surrendered 28 points per game last season and gave up 414 yards of total offense in 2017. Through two games this season, Southern Utah has given up 41 points and 601 yards of offense per game. That is shockingly bad. Not to downgrade Lopez’s performance against them, but it is safe to say that the Bison are a better defensive opponent.
That is not to say Lopez and company have anything to offer. I am actually inclined to believe that they may move the ball well early in this game. With the speed they do have, it could catch NDSU off guard to start.
Below you will see the traditional way North Alabama will line up on offense.
As you can see, it is a relatively traditional spread set. While it is usually Lopez and running back Damon Cox lining up in the shotgun, it does have its variations. Expect to see some sets with running backs on both sides of Lopez or just Lopez in the shotgun. On this play in particular, North Alabama ran a read option, leading to one of Lopez’s rushing touchdowns.
One thing that cannot happen on Saturday is allowing Lopez to get outside of the pocket and run. He is slippery and tends to make more plays when he is evading pressure. Take these two examples below.
Now, this could have very well been a designed run for Lopez. Never the less, look at the green field ahead of him on the right side. There is not a Southern Utah defender close to him. Designed runs or extended plays like this are usually limited by North Dakota State. However, it is this aspect that could give Matt Entz the most headaches.
Yes, this play does not occur if not for the bad snap. Yet, Alabama A&M’s anemic tackling ability played a large role in Lopez ultimately making this play. Like I said, he’s slippery.
The Lions utilize their athletic roster in several different ways. Primarily, they look to get it into the hands of their playmakers early and have them make defenders miss. This is done through wide receiver screens, which North Alabama ran at length against Southern Utah.
Sure, some of that has to do with poor tackling. However, their skill players are incredibly shifty and tough to take down as well. Lopez also has the capability to throw the ball further downfield. He cannot make all of the throws, but he does have tremendous arm strength. That way, he can put receivers in a position to make a play.
Lastly, beyond all of that passing prowess, the Lions run the ball efficiently too. Outside of Lopez, they rely on senior Damon Cox and redshirt junior Terrance Humphrey. Cox has commanded most of the carries, but he and Humprey have combined for 248 yards on 47 carries. That is an average of 5.3 yards per carry, a very solid number. Sure, it’s not 10.2, but it’s enough to get the job done to this point.
Speed is the word to know for North Alabama. Like their offense, they offer some fast athletes on their front seven and beyond. Sophomore middle linebacker Christon Taylor has been the most impressive for the Lions. In two games, he already has 21 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. There are athletes like Taylor all over the field for North Alabama. It also helps that this unit is starting six seniors and no true or redshirt freshman. Meaning that this is an experienced team that is familiar with one another. Will that lead to success against a daunting NDSU offensive line and running back corps? Maybe, but it’s hard to pick against what NDSU has to offer offensively compared to the Lions defense.
Have a look at what their defensive speed can do.
The Bison will likely not pass early in the game, and they will certainly not be attempting to air it out like the last GIF. This may limit North Alabama’s chance to gain momentum defensively. They will have to do it by stopping the Bison rush attack early which has proven to be quite the challenge for any team. For a new Division I team it may become even more difficult. Look for North Alabama to make some plays, but not enough to keep them competitive for 60 minutes.