If BR-1 North Dakota State knocks off BR-2 Illinois State in the FCS National Championship game on Saturday in Frisco, Texas, the senior class will have more national championship wins (four) than overall losses (three).
In the words of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, “Holy schnikes!”
In an FCS landscape loaded with up-and-coming coaches and underrated athletes primed to make their mark in the NFL, the consistency with which the Bison continue to dominate is simply remarkable.
First-year head coach Chris Klieman has picked up in 2014 right where predecessor Craig Bohl left off. Talk about big shoes for Klieman to fill: During his 11 seasons at North Dakota State, Bohl went 104-32, finished in first place on four occasions, and became the only school alongside Appalachian State to win three consecutive FCS Championships.
After Bohl left for Wyoming in the offseason, any sort of letdown for the Bison this year would’ve been understandable.
Forget a letdown! North Dakota State enters Saturday’s showdown with the Redbirds with a 14-1 record, coming off a 35-3 thumping of Sam Houston State in December’s semifinal.
One of the big reasons Bohl’s boys are playing for all the marbles once again is a stout defense that held opponents under 20 points 12 times on the season, including a season opening road upset over Power 5 FBS squad Iowa State. Well, upset might not be the right word — it was the fifth year in a row the Bison knocked off an FBS team on the road to kick things off. They held the Cyclones to just 253 total yards on their home turf, forced two turnovers, and limited them to just 24:13 of possession in the 34-14 win.
En route to a 9-0 start, the defense never relinquished more than 17 points. The Bison ended the year giving up just 13.2 points per game, and were led by 109 tackles by Carlton Littlejohn’s and 97 takedowns by Colten Heagle. Buck Emanuel award winner (FCS Defensive Player of the Year) Kyle Emanuel was an absolute beast, ranking third in the FCS in both sacks (19.5) and tackles for a loss at 2.1 per game. Senior safety Christian Dudzik will make the 61st start of his career this weekend — a first in D1 football.
As a unit, the Bison held opponents to just 270 yards per game, which is part of the reason fans in the Fargo Dome where scratching their heads during the Bison’s quarterfinal matchup versus Coastal Carolina.
During the December 13 tilt, the Chanticleers rolled up nearly 400 yards of offense, including 143 rushing yards by De’Angelo Henderson. The Bison D also allowed three fourth down conversions, uncharacteristic for this veteran bunch.
The defense was saved by John Crockett’s epic day in which the back ran 26 times for 227 yards and two scores. His last TD came from 45 yards out in the final quarter to solidify the 39-32 win.
For a defense that ranked first in the nation in scoring defense, they had to be feeling concerned going into the semifinal matchup with Sam Houston State.
But the Bison defense does what great defense do: they held the Bearkats in check all day, giving up just a second quarter field goal en route to a dominating 35-3 performance.
“They heard everything in the last couple of weeks, that boy they’re not that good,” Klieman said after the win. “I am so proud of those guys.”
Although Crockett’s 1,953 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns this season will make him the focal point in Saturday’s FCS Championship, don’t be surprised to see quarterback Carson Wentz take to the air more than normal.
While the Redbirds feature a stout defense that gave up a stingy 115 rushing yards per game, the secondary definitely has its flaws. It allowed over 220 passing yards per contest and surrendered 18 touchdown through the air. If play-action draws the safeties up, Bison wideouts Zach Vraa and R.J. Urzendowski — along with tight end Kevin Vaadeland — could find themselves running free through the secondary.
Ultimately, whether or not North Dakota State wins an unprecedented fourth straight national title will come down to its defense. Illinois State possesses arguably the most lethal backfield duo in the FCS this year in QB Tre Roberson and Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year, running back Marshaun Coprich. The duo combined for 3,036 yards on the ground and 37 touchdowns to help their team to a 12-1 record.
Klieman and his FCS-leading defense have a chance to do what no school has ever done at the FCS level. To make history, the defensive line will have to find a way to contain Roberson and Coprich. If they can keep the duo in check, and if Wentz can exploit an often-leaky Redbirds’ defensive secondary, the Bison could find themselves hoisting a mighty big trophy above their heads once again.