Five key stats in the FCS championship game
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - The most important number will be on the Toyota Stadium scoreboard, but how the final score is shaped in Saturday's FCS championship game will come from many directions.
Not surprisingly, the statistics glow with Eastern Washington (12-2) and North Dakota State (14-0), who will square in Frisco, Texas.
Following are five crucial stats to watch for in the 2018 championship game:
Time of Possession
North Dakota State grinds down opponents by controlling the ball on average for 32 minutes, 19 seconds, which ranks 17th-best in the FCS. Eastern Washington is more of a quick-strike attack, holding the ball for only 27:23 per game despite being ranked second nationally in offensive yards per game. The Bison, who held the ball for 37:41 in last year's championship game win over James Madison, are tough to beat with a decisive advantage in time of possession.
While NDSU's power run game has long provided one of the best rushing offenses in the FCS, Eastern Washington isn't far behind this season, up over 106 yards per game to 263 yards on average (10th-best nationally). Running back Sam McPherson (1,352 yards, 12 touchdowns) is the key, but the potential difference maker is quarterback Eric Barriere (603 yards, seven TDs, 6.7 yards per carry) on keepers and scrambles. NDSU, though, is stout against the run, allowing 111.5 yards per game (13th nationally).
Red Zone Efficiency
With stakes so high, neither team can afford to waste scoring opportunities. Few teams do it better than NDSU. The Bison have come away with points on 91 percent of their trips to an opponent's red zone, including with touchdowns an even more impressive 81 percent of the time. Their opponents have scored only 50 percent of the time - the lowest rate in the FCS - and are a mere 7 of 22 (32 percent) with scoring touchdowns. Eastern Washington scores 85 percent of the time (65 percent with touchdowns) and surrenders points 73 percent of the time (but just 59 percent with touchdowns).
Ball security will be huge. NDSU has a plus-1.29 turnover margin per game, which ranks fourth nationally. The Bison, behind safety Robbie Grimsley's six interceptions, are plus-18 overall, losing the ball only nine times in 14 games and just four times on fumbles despite having 616 rushing attempts. Eastern Washington also is strong overall, plus-0.79 in turnover margin per game and plus-11 overall (but plus-15 during a seven-game winning streak). The noticeable difference is the Eagles have lost the ball 21 times this season.
Points that you don't see coming can turn the tide in a game. Considering Eastern Washington is a decisive underdog at 13 points, the Eagles may need some points that aren't scored by the offense. The Eagles have scored an impressive seven non-offensive touchdowns - the defense producing six times and Nsimba Webster once on a punt return. Conversely, NDSU has three defensive touchdowns, including two by linebacker Jabril Cox off interceptions, and hasn't scored on a kickoff or punt return.
Updated January 2, 2019