Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of Preston Evans and Bison Illustrated’s look back at the foundation of the Bison football dynasty. You can read Part 1 here.
The lonesome three-win 2009 season was tough for the Bison football team. Preston Evans remembers moments during the season where he wished he wasn’t recognized on campus as a football player.
Attendance numbers dipped after that fall, too, and it didn’t recover until 2011. The average home attendance for a Bison game in 2010 was 15,944. The timing of the Robert Morris playoff game in November cut attendance even lower and only 12,202 attended the first-ever FCS playoff game in Fargodome history.
But it was more than just numbers. It took until 2011 for the fans to find their voice. Evans remembers the exact moment Bison Nation found their mojo.
A confident Northern Iowa came to Fargo as the No. 2 team in the country. The Bison were on a three-game skid against their former North Central Conference foe. That all changed when they walked into a raucous 18,886-person Fargodome.
“UNI, that’s the pinnacle. That’s who we wanted to be because they were the top of the conference,” Evans said. “It was the craziest game. I don’t remember the game but it was loudest that it has ever been.”
Even the Bison defense was struggling with the crowd noise.
“One of the first drives of the game, it was me, Chad Wilson—an addition to our team that made us so much better—and Travis Beck out on the field together, and we can’t hear. We’re trying to give each other hand signals, and I look and they had four receivers out to our right. I’m the middle linebacker and Chad and Travis are to my left (laughs). And I’m yelling, dude. I’m jumping up and down yelling at them, and they can’t hear me,” explained Evans.
“It was so exciting to be a part of something like that. I’ve never heard it that loud. I don’t think I’ve been in a bigger game.”
The Fargodome saw its attendance jump from an average of 15,944 in 2010 to 18,143 in 2011. Bison Nation continues the reputation it built during the first championship season and continues to make opponents uneasy about coming to Fargo.
The Bison cruised to a one-loss regular season in 2011. They trounced James Madison and Lehigh in the first two rounds of the playoffs by a combined score of 50-14. It was onto three-seeded Georgia Southern in the semifinals, a game that would earn the title “The Brock Jensen Flu Game,” due to an ailing Bison quarterback. But there’s another interesting caveat from that matchup.
Georgia Southern ran the triple option and had been steamrolling teams across the country all season with its ground and pound style. Their last regular season against the eventual FBS champs Alabama, the Eagles ran for over 300 yards. Preston Evans and the Bison defense knew they were in for a physical test. But what they found in the week leading up to the game, defending the option was all about sticking to your gap assignments and filling the proper lanes.
That week during game prep, head coach Craig Bohl invited what Evans would call a “Triple Option” whisperer to practice. A coach who will remain unnamed arrived at practice to give the Bison advice on stopping the run.
“We had so many walkthroughs, there was no downtime,” Evans said. “Some of it sucked, I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t want to be doing walkthroughs at whatever time where I could be doing something else but our attitude was ‘We’re not letting this slip.’ We were way too close and we were going to do everything we can. I’ve never seen that much laser-like focus in my life on anything.”
The walkthroughs and attitude worked. Georgia Southern was held to 186 yards on the ground, which was well below their season average.
“You talk about preparation coming out in its finest hour, that Georgia Southern game was it, man,” Evans said. “It was the epitome of preparing to the max, no left stone unturned.”
Looking back at the 2008 and 2009 seasons, it’s apparent that injuries on defense played a part in two underwhelming years for the Bison. Preston Evans credits those injuries for him getting the opportunity to play his true freshman season. The Bison simply had no one else to play linebacker.
Craig Bohl and his staff didn’t let that become an excuse after the 2009 season. During fall camp prior to the 2010 season, the Bison started practicing with what they called “double-reps.” This means, instead of having one field with the first-team offense playing the second-team defense and rotating reps with the second-team offense and the first-team defense, they introduced a second field to basically have two team scrimmages happening at once. Suddenly, everyone on the team was getting live reps in practice.
“When you’re in the Missouri Valley, 1s and 2s aren’t winning games for you,” Evans said. “It’s the 3s and 4s and maybe the fifth guy that you need because someone is getting hurt and that’s what we learned the hard way.”
Freshmen and sophomores were given an opportunity in practice and the cream raised to the top. The backups were prepared for game action if a starter got hurt.
“One of the secrets to success was that we started double-repping,” Evans said. “You see the talent level pop up through the roof and the bottom level just jumped because you get a season and a half of reps just in fall camp.”
The Bison defense was loaded during the 2010 season and suddenly freshmen like Colten Heagle were getting enough reps in practice and earning starting spots. In 2011, the trend continued with freshmen Christian Dudzik, Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn and Kyle Emanuel starting games. All four of these players would end every season of their Bison careers as champions.
The double-repping in practice continues on the practice field at NDSU and is the secret to the reload attitude on the Bison football team.