When Trey Lance was named the North Dakota State starting quarterback in mid-August, he was stepping into almost impossible expectations. Lance was replacing the all-time FCS wins leader in Easton Stick. He was doing so for a program with national championship standards and a fan base that books flights and hotels a year in advance of the national title games.
And Lance was doing it as a redshirt freshman.
But he didn't get caught up in the weight of the expectations. Lance didn't think about what would happen if the Bison fell short of Frisco, Texas. Or how he would be perceived if he has a few shaky performances to start the year. Lance said his mindset was all about doing everything he can to prepare for Butler, the Week 1 opponent.
While the day-by-day, game-by-game attitude has turned into a top sports cliche, for a redshirt freshman in Lance's shoes to actually think that way was a sign of things to come.
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With a new-look coaching staff and several new starters around him, Lance has played a huge part in NDSU not missing a beat, leading the Bison back to the national championship on Saturday against James Madison at 11 a.m. CT on ABC. The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder has thrown for 2,714 yards, 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions with the No. 1 passing efficiency in the FCS (182.8). Lance adds 934 rushing yards and 13 more TDs.
Lance won the Jerry Rice Award for top FCS freshman and is a top-four finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the subdivision.
"My main goal for me was to be the starter," Lance told HERO Sports last week. "That’s what the focus was, so I didn’t set a lot of personal expectations besides just getting onto the field. I’ve always been confident in what I can do. And the coaches put me in positions to be successful. But all the individual stuff is something that I definitely wasn’t expecting. That wasn’t part of the plan this year. Just winning games is what I was focused on.”
Winning games is exactly what he's done. The Bison are 15-0 heading into Saturday. Of the seven NDSU championship teams in the last eight seasons, only two have gone undefeated — the veteran squads of 2013 and 2018 that are arguably the best teams in the subdivision's history.
Lance is one of 15 new offensive and defensive starters in 2019. Yet NDSU is outscoring its opponents 37.9-11.8. While that's slightly down from the 41.5-12.6 scoring advantage from last year, it's on par with the 2013 team that averaged 38.7 points per game and allowed 11.3 PPG.
This run of dominance for NDSU has featured quarterbacks like Brock Jensen, who was the FCS career wins record-holder until Stick broke it, Carson Wentz, who was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, and Stick, a fifth-round draft pick last year.
There's been no dropoff in play with Lance as QB1.
*Carson Wentz started seven games in 2015 due to a wrist injury. Easton Stick started the other eight.
**Statistics before the national title game.
“In my time, I have not," NDSU quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg told HERO Sports when asked if he's seen a second-year quarterback with Lance's level of skill set. Hedberg has been a college coach since 1982 and has been coaching the Bison QBs since 2014. "I’ve been very fortunate to work with great QBs. For a second-year guy, he probably rivals Easton in the regard that they both have a high football IQ as second-year freshmen. His maturity and poise have been off the charts this year.”
A key part in Lance's success this season, Hedberg noted, is the experience he got last year. He not only dressed for all 15 games and played in two contests as part of the four-game redshirt rule, but Lance also spent every day in practice with NDSU's offense, as opposed to Stick spending his redshirt season on the scout team running the opposition's offense.
— Dom Izzo (@DomIzzoWDAY) November 27, 2019
The Bison knew they got a recruiting gem when Lance made it official and signed his national letter of intent in December 2017. And it didn't take long once Lance got on campus for the coaches to see just what kind of raw abilities he had.
“The biggest thing is you noticed his arm speed and arm talent," Hedberg said. "The toughest thing for Trey was he wasn’t under center a lot in high school. He spent most of his time in the gun when he was at Marshall [Minnesota] High School, which most kids are doing now. So it was a struggle for him early to get the proper footwork from under center. Those are the things we worked on right away. But as far as his arm strength, that was very apparent to us. And is accuracy was also something we noticed right away too. He was accurate with his throws.”
That adds up, considering he's thrown zero interceptions this season. Lance admits he has thrown plenty of picks in practice, whether it was in August or in these weeks preparing for JMU. But it's yet to happen in a game.
The night before Lance signed with NDSU, Boise State swooped in it with a late offer. He stayed committed to the Bison. It turns out, the level of expectations the program faces every year was one of the more attractive parts about NDSU for Lance. He's now firmly a part of those expectations.
“Everyone on our roster will tell you the same thing — when we committed to North Dakota State, the expectations are championships … conference championships and national championships," Lance said. "That’s what we signed up for and that’s our expectation.”
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