In the beginning of North Dakota State’s run of seven FCS national titles in eight years, the Bison did it with outstanding defense and efficient, solid offense. The first three national championship teams from 2011-13 averaged 31.3, 33.0 and 38.7 points per game during the Brock Jensen QB era.
The 2014 squad in Carson Wentz’s first season as the starter averaged 32.9 PPG and the 2015 team under Wentz/Easton Stick averaged 34.9. The 2016 team that lost in the semifinals to James Madison was at 29.1 and the 2017 team improved to 38.7. Last year, the final season of the Easton Stick QB era, NDSU averaged 41.5 points per game.
In recent years, as evident by the numbers above, the Bison have gone from a good offense to an explosive offense. And that trend has continued in 2019 as the Trey Lance QB era is underway. NDSU is putting up 40.0 points a game, which ranks fourth in the FCS.
The Bison are getting it done in several different ways. Of course, there’s the power-run game behind five behemoth offensive linemen and a deep stable of running backs. Lance, just a redshirt freshman, has taken over the reins as well as any of the previous two quarterbacks (two NFL Draft picks, by the way). And NDSU has developed a “new breed” of pass-catchers that has taken the offense to the next level.
Among those pass-catchers are the tight ends, who play as vital of a role as anyone on the team.
NDSU tight ends get the best of both worlds. They get to pop pads in the trenches and be a crucial part of the run game success. They also are big-time factors in the passing attack.
Ben Ellefson, Josh Babicz and Noah Gindorff have caught 15 of NDSU’s 24 touchdown receptions. Those 15 touchdowns are off of just 29 combined catches between the three. These guys are touchdown-catching machines. They are more likely to find the end zone after a catch than to be tackled between the two goal lines.
“It’s part of what Trey Lance is doing at quarterback and what the coaches see throughout the week and putting us in the best position possible to make plays,” Ellefson told HERO Sports. “And we’ve been able to do that so far. I just think when you have a very diverse kind of offense with good running backs and good receivers, it comes down to how dynamic we are on offense as a whole.”
Ellefson is the veteran of the group as a redshirt senior. He’s your prototypical tight end at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. Ellefson can be an extension of the offensive line and his coaches have called him the best blocking tight end this program has seen. He also has a knack for the end zone with 13 combined TD catches in 2018 and 2019.
But there are a couple of youngsters that have added a whole new element to the tight end position. Babicz and Gindorff are 6-foot-6 sophomores with Gindorff weighing 262 pounds and Babicz weighing 253 pounds.
“For the last couple of years since Babicz and Gindorff have been here, I’ve been the shortest tight end in the room,” Ellefson said. “It’s kind of been the running joke. As long as I’ve been here, that’s probably the tallest we’ve had is 6-foot-6 with those two. Their ability to be split out, run routes and catch the ball and then all of our ability to be physical in the run, it’s hard for defenses. It’s kind of the new breed of tight end here at NDSU.”
Babicz has worked his way from being a thinner pass-catching tight end as a 225-pound true freshman in 2017 to someone who can be on the field in any situation.
“It’s fun to be able to do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways,” Babicz told HERO Sports. “We’re trying to make plays in whatever way, shape or form … It goes back to practice and doing the little things, like focusing on my first step and focusing where I punch my hands. It’s also learning the defense and making sure I’m effective in my steps when I run block. And just being able to trust Trey whenever I go out in my routes and making sure I’m running clean routes so he can get it to me easily.”
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, Tyler Roehl is in his first year as the offensive coordinator and happens to be the position coach for the tight ends and fullbacks. He has coached those positions at NDSU since 2014. There’s zero worry of actual drama, but you can bet players and other coaches give them a hard time.
“There are some joking going on in the locker room or in practice,” Ellefson said. “And I know it’s the same thing with some of the coaches. It’s all in good fun. It’s all about putting us in successful positions and executing.”
The Bison are executing on offense at a whole new level in recent seasons. You couple that with the defense continuing its tradition of lock-down play (NDSU is first in the FCS with 12.2 points allowed per game), and the Bison are as dynamic of a team as they’ve ever been.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.