A lot has gone into North Dakota State winning nine FCS national titles since 2011. Recruiting, development, coaching, tradition, style of ball, home-field advantage, etc. But something the Bison do more than any other team in the 24-team playoff bracket is making the big plays when they matter most.
When the game is on the line, it’s the Bison who make the winning play 99% of the time.
The examples are aplenty.
Brock Jensen scored on a fourth-down TD run late in the fourth quarter to beat Georgia Southern 23-20 in the 2012 semifinals. In 2014, Carson Wentz hit RJ Urzendowski for a TD with 54 seconds left to beat South Dakota State 27-24 in the second round, then John Crockett’s 45-yard TD run in the fourth gave NDSU the go-ahead lead on Coastal Carolina to win 39-32 in the quarterfinals, then NDSU drove the field to beat Illinois State 29-27 in the title game after falling behind 27-23 with 1:38 left. In 2017, NDSU hit one big play in the second half to go up 17-3 on James Madison in the title game, a difference-making score in a 17-13 NDSU win. In the 2019 season, James Hendricks sealed a 28-20 national title win over JMU with an interception on the goal line in the final seconds. In 2021, the Bison again sealed the game with a late interception vs. JMU in the semifinals, this one a one-handed pick by Destin Talbert in the end zone to win 20-14.
NDSU did it again tonight in the semifinals vs. an Incarnate Word squad that had plenty of reasons to win. But it was NDSU who made the winning plays.
After UIW jumped all over NDSU for a 16-0 lead in the first quarter. The Bison clawed back into it doing what they do best: running the ball. UIW stopped the run at times, but the Bison got big chunks and scores in key moments.
The Bison scored 17 unanswered to hold a 17-16 halftime lead. UIW battled in the second half, taking a 29-24 lead in the third and a 32-27 lead in the fourth. Yet NDSU still found a way to win despite Cam Miller going 1-of-12 passing for five yards. NDSU committed to the run, rushing 48 times for 328 yards, the most important one a 31-yard Kobe Johnson TD run to give NDSU a 35-32 lead with 8:11 to play. A lead that would end up being the final score.
UIW had its chances. NDSU just came up bigger in big moments.
The Cardinals elected to go for it on fourth-and-four on NDSU’s 22-yard line with 5:18 left instead of trying to tie with a field goal. NDSU got a stop and the ball.
UIW then forced a fumble and looked to have recovered it, but a rather quick replay that reviewed the recovery kept it NDSU ball near midfield.
Yes, a controversial missed call after more replays after the fact showed a UIW defender with the ball at the end. Maybe the replay officials saw an NDSU player laying on top of the ball first to stick with the call on the field — a fumble with the NDSU offense recovering it. It’s a close enough play to spark outrage on Twitter. But there have been multiple controversial missed calls this season out of the Big Sky, CAA, and SoCon late in games (Sac State-Montana, Furman-Samford, Rhody-UNH) that had they been called differently, the entire playoff seeds or field could have been different. Missed or controversial calls happen in sports. It sucks, but it happens. That one didn’t define today’s result, though.
UIW could have been tied at that point if it kicked the field goal. Plus, it got the ball back with plenty of time and was driving near midfield.
But that’s when NDSU made the clutch, game-winning play again late in a postseason game. Lindsey Scott Jr., who has been phenomenal all season and played a wonderful game, launched a deep ball with just over a minute to play. He left it too far in the middle of the field as he drifted outside the pocket, allowing Dawson Weber to get in front of the receiver and outjump him for the game-sealing interception.
Say what you want about the missed call on the fumble. Say what you want about the seeding and how Montana State should have been hosting this game. None of that is NDSU’s fault. The Bison made the winning plays when it mattered today. UIW did not, whether it was fumbling the snap on a fourth-and-goal when it could have gone up 23-3, or a holding call on a first-down run in the red zone that could have set UIW up for a two-possession lead in the second half but instead resulted in a field goal, or electing to go for the lead and not the tie with a field goal in the fourth, or not stopping NDSU’s run after UIW re-grabbed the lead, or throwing a 50/50 ball on the final drive when Scott didn’t need to take that risk.
UIW had multiple reasons to win this game. Had the Cardinals made any of those plays above, maybe they would have.
Now, NDSU is heading back to Frisco for the 10th time, looking to extend its record there to 10-0. The Bison will face either South Dakota State or Montana State. The winner tomorrow will likely be a favorite over NDSU in the title game. The Bison’s passing attack did not look good tonight, the defense was vulnerable, and they lost more players to injuries. But they still won.
Sometimes you need a little luck to make it through a 24-team bracket. The ball bounces your way. A penalty goes your way. A missed call goes your way. The Bison have gotten some of those throughout their dynasty. And that’s all fine and dandy to complain about on social media. But at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, or whatever other cliche you want to use, the Bison have been the team to make the winning play in crunch time. And that’s what it ultimately came down to tonight in Fargo.