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Friday, January 27, 2023

North Dakota State’s Run Has No End in Sight

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When North Dakota State won the national championship in 2011, few would have anticipated it was the beginning of the most dominant dynasty in Football Championship Subdivision history.

But, six years and five more championships later, that’s just what happened. And there are no signs of the dynasty coming to an end.

Few dynasties can survive a coaching change, but this one has. After going back-to-back-to-back, head coach Craig Bohl took the job at Wyoming, leaving the program in the hands of his defensive coordinator, Chris Klieman.

All Klieman’s done is win three championships in his four years at the helm, most recently dispatching James Madison, 17-13, while putting an end to the Dukes’ 26-game winning streak. There was talk before the game that a JMU victory would signal the end of the Bison’s reign, ushering in a new era of FCS football. But the Dukes didn’t win, NDSU did.

JMU had its chances in the second half, and had the ball in the red zone in the final minute of the game looking for a go-ahead touchdown. Rather than fold under the pressure, NDSU stood its ground and forced a turnover on downs that effectively ended the game.
While its offense was scoreless in the second half, constant pressure with swarming tenacity up front kept the Dukes at bay. The Bison stymied JMU’s rushing attack the entire game and made huge plays, like when it forced JMU quarterback Bryan Schor into an interception at the goal line in the third quarter.

“Resolve and character is hard to beat,” Klieman said. “That’s the neat thing about being in that locker room with those guys, is they’re going to battle for each other.”

Time and time again against JMU, NDSU made the key play, got the key stop and didn’t hurt itself.

“They made the plays, and we made too many mistakes,” said JMU head coach Mike Houston. “That’s what it boils down to.”

Perhaps more impressive than NDSU’s run surviving a coaching change is how it’s dealt with turnover at the quarterback position. Brock Jensen guided the team to the first three titles from 2011 to 2013 before graduating. Then came Carson Wentz, who waited three years to become the starter, before winning two more championships in 2014 and 2015.

It hasn’t always been easy, however. The 2015 team overcame the loss of Wentz, who missed the final eight weeks of the season with a broken wrist. Starting in his absence was Easton Stick, who at the time was an unknown freshman to those outside the Bison program.

Other programs would’ve had a hard time adjusting to this, but NDSU was too strong for that. Stick didn’t lose a game as a starter and got Bison to the two-seed in the playoffs. They steamrolled the competition, and with Wentz back for the championship game, demolished No. 1 seed Jacksonville State 37-10.

Stick became the starter when Wentz moved onto the NFL, and became a third Bison starting quarterback to win a national championship when they took down JMU, and at this rate, he won’t be the last. It’s a testament to the program Bohl and Klieman have built over the last decade.

“It’s really special,” Stick said. “To be out there yesterday at our walk-through and see 200, 300 former players be around, that’s what makes this place so special.”

Usually bigger, stronger, tougher and more physical than its opponents, NDSU packs a punch other teams simply haven’t been able to handle. It also helps to have the best home-field advantage in all of FCS.

The Bison are 25-2 in eight playoff appearances since joining the FCS in 2004, playing many of the games in the raucous Fargodome, where NDSU is 21-1 in playoff games since its opening in 1993. Measuring above 110 decibels on multiple occasions, the 19,000-seat stadium can get as loud as the New Orleans Saints’ Superdome, which holds over 75,000 people.

It’s an environment that is unique in FCS football, in which most teams are used to playing in front of crowds more the half that size with a fraction of the noise level. With NDSU being seeded in the top four so often, it all but guarantees home playoff games until the semifinal round, making it hard to anticipate playoff losses in Fargo, N.D. any time soon.

Combine NDSU’s winning tradition and home-field advantage with its coaching and quarterback stability, and you’ve got the makings of a dynastic freight train that will be nearly impossible to stop.

In FCS, the 2017 season will go down as the year NDSU regained its title crown, but it wouldn’t at all be surprising if it also went down as the year that began a second run of consecutive championships.

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