Braylon Henderson’s first introduction to North Dakota State football was during the Bison’s annual January trek to Frisco, Texas, for the FCS national championship.
Henderson attended Plano East High School, less than 25 miles from Toyota Stadium. He remembers watching NDSU on TV winning title after title, and seeing Bison fans everywhere he went during that weekend. The wide receiver recruit and NDSU coaching staff were connected, and the lure of winning championships and having the opportunity to play near home basically every year got Henderson to head north to play college ball.
“On my official visit, I saw all the coaches and the facilities, but the thing that I saw that stuck out to me the most was all of those rings,” Henderson, now a junior, said. “They had this box full of rings. In high school, I didn’t win very much. It was really inspiring to see those kinds of things, putting on all of those rings, and having my hand stacked full of rings.”
Getting pitched national titles as a recruit was a common theme talking to NDSU and South Dakota State players a couple of days before the two rivals meet in the FCS championship.
For NDSU recruits, it was to help continue a modern-day dynasty that has now earned nine FCS trophies. For SDSU recruits, it was to help continue closing the gap on the Bison and bring home the program’s first FCS title.
Jaxon Janke recalls sitting in the SDSU coaching offices with his twin brother Jadon and talking to linebackers coach and now defensive coordinator Jimmy Rogers. Jaxon remembers the conversation for two vivid reasons. Rogers told the brothers that he sees them leading the Jackrabbits to a national championship as standout linebackers. Jaxon and Jadon, of course, are now two go-to senior wide receivers for SDSU, a position they knew they wanted to play in college. And they did arrive at SDSU as receivers, but Jaxon laughs at the memory of being pitched as linebackers but also being believers in the national championship aspect of the pitch.
“At the time, they were still a powerhouse but it ended early in the playoffs every year,” Jaxon said. “Coming from Madison, South Dakota, we brought three high school football championships. So we were used to winning. And that’s the culture we wanted to continue here. We were very confident that we could do that here. And my dad even told Coach Stig to get prepared for some national title appearances.”
The Jankes were a part of the 2018 recruiting class. SDSU was coming off its first-ever FCS semifinal appearance in the 2017 season. That came a year after the program’s first-ever quarterfinal appearance. The Jacks saw first or second-round exits from 2012-2015. SDSU followed up the 2017 semifinal appearance with a return trip to the 2018 semis.
The program was making strides, but the playoff losses were lopsided: 36-10 at NDSU in the 2016 quarters, 51-16 at James Madison in the 2017 semis, and 44-21 at NDSU in the 2018 semis. The 2019 season saw a regression, not helped by injuries, with a second-round home loss to Northern Iowa.
Then SDSU hit a new level, reaching its first-ever FCS title game in the 2021 spring season and losing a last-minute 23-21 heartbreaker to Sam Houston. The Jacks advanced to the semifinals last fall, losing at Montana State. And now they are back in Frisco for a championship bout against NDSU, a team they have beaten three straight times dating back to the spring season.
Hoisting its first FCS trophy also means SDSU beating NDSU for the first time in the playoffs. The Jacks are favorites to do so, according to the odds and most game predictions. But NDSU, for what it’s worth, is 9-0 in Frisco.
SDSU used to be satisfied with deep playoff runs. Expectations changed, starting with some of the current upperclassmen.
“[Former SDSU offensive line coach Jason Eck] always used to say you can be a part of the first one,” SDSU senior OL Mason McCormick said about his recruitment memories. “It was a thought for sure, but I don’t know how much of a reality it was back then. It’s really cool to see our program progression and how this is our expectation now. It is national championship or bust for us.”
NDSU, meanwhile, keeps raising its own seemingly impossible standard.
First, it was an FCS three-peat from 2011-2013 under Craig Bohl’s staff. Some thought it’d end there, but Chris Klieman turned it into a five-peat in 2014 and 2015. After losing in the 2016 semifinals to JMU, the Bison rattled off another three-peat of championships from 2017-2019 with the 2019 ring coming in Matt Entz’s first year as head coach.
After losing in the 2021 spring quarterfinals at SHSU, the Bison bounced back last fall for their ninth FCS title.
All of those trophies and rings make for extraordinary expectations. But it’s those expectations that help sell recruits.
“[National championships were] pitched to me pretty heavily,” NDSU senior running back Kobe Johnson said. “That was one thing that they wanted to make sure I understood, was that when you come here the expectation is to win. And I accepted that challenge. I embraced it. And I’m enjoying it.”