Nobody follows the FCS closer than Craig Haley. When we’re watching the Bison at the Fargodome, Haley is keeping an eye on all the teams, gaining a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable FCS minds in the country. Even though he had Jacksonville State ranked No. 1 in the STATS Poll for most of the season, he wasn’t surprised NDSU handled business like they did in Frisco. He explains why in our conversation.
(Editor’s Note: This conversation happened over the phone on January 11)
Bison Illustrated: Did you think the game was going to be closer than the final score indicated?
Craig Haley: “I think most people probably thought it would be somewhat closer. I picked the Bison, as most people did, but at some point last week, I started to question if I was underestimating Jacksonville State. Then, when I was talking to players on Thursday, I left there thinking Jacksonville State has no idea what they’re getting into with the Bison. And the Bison are just on another level than everybody else. I think right now, the teams in-conference have the best chance against them. Next year, would Northern Iowa obviously, but their front line, the offensive line is just ridiculously big and they’re just solid players and solid physically and you know, having two senior cornerbacks and that allows the defensive line to go to work. They’re just a relentless machine and I left there Thursday after open practice saying, no, Jacksonville State doesn’t know what they’re getting into here.”
BI: Was it more of Jacksonville State playing in the Ohio Valley, which is not as strong, or NDSU playing in more close games this season?
“That’s a considerable difference, you’re right. The Missouri Valley Football Conference from the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) is a drop off especially the other teams that played in the championship games. Towson came from the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association), which is obviously stronger than the OVC. Sam Houston, coming from the Southland, that’s pretty comparable to the OVC, slightly stronger. Jacksonville State deserved to be number one throughout the year. They beat the teams they were supposed to and they beat them handedly. When they played tough opponents they did well. Even in the playoffs, their first three wins were against top 10 teams. They had just a ferocious offense that only the Bison shut down. I think they deserved to be number one throughout the year, in the back of my head, I thought NDSU was better, so I’d pick them number one even though I did feel Jacksonville State deserved to be number one in the STATS Poll. I don’t think their conference gave them quite what NDSU sees from week to week and it showed here. They had to come out strong and take that punch to the face and they didn’t. That’s another thing I’ve been writing about is, you have to take that punch in the face from North Dakota State because they know how to put teams away. It’s crazy how they just take a lead and go off and win when they need to. Their second adjustments during these five years have been unbelievable just how they win the second half.”
BI: Was the punch in the face that first drive when NDSU kept handing the ball off, daring Jacksonville State to stop them?
“Yeah, they’re going to show you the power run game and their physical defense and throw that at you and see how you react, especially the conference teams that they’re facing. Jacksonville State just wasn’t ready for that. You could see on the first drive, that some of the defensive linemen already had their hands on their hips. They were just taken aback during that first drive, let alone what they were going to face throughout the game.”
BI: What were your opinions with NDSU and specifically the defense after the Montana loss to begin the season?
“I never felt their defense was going to get to the level they got to. But at the same time, I just felt it’s an August game. You don’t have your legs underneath you quite yet and you’re facing this team that is just going to pass, pass and pass. I thought there was a little bit of an excuse there. Now, again, I don’t think anybody could see how good this defense was going to be. Their defense in the playoffs was as good as it gets. But at the same time, I thought that loss to Montana was a little deceptive. It’s tough. When you come out and a team is going to pass the ball 50 times on you and it’s only August, eh, there’s a little bit of an excuse. At the same time, with Carson Wentz, before he got hurt, I thought they should have one of the best offenses out there in the FCS. You’re not going to have these incredible passing numbers that these other teams are going to have in this day and age because that’s not NDSU’s style. To me, they had one of the best offenses all year when Carson was healthy.”
BI: What about your feelings after the South Dakota loss because they also lost Carson?
“That’s one of the biggest surprises of the season. I do think in conference play, in any conference, people aren’t quite as intimidated because you know your league opponents so well. I thought with losing Wentz, that next game was critical. When you’re 4-2 and knowing you have some tough games ahead and you’re going to Indiana State, if they had lost that, then everybody is starting to get really nervous. I feel like NDSU was saying they were confident in Easton (Stick) going into that game and they knew his talent, but you have to have some questions in the back of your head. You’re going on the road against a tough Indiana State team and you’re only 4-2, knowing what a loss could do, I feel that was a huge game. They got through it, and then Easton started to take off as well.”
BI: What did you think of Easton Stick? He’s not like Carson Wentz, but maybe he’s more of a Brock Jensen-type.
“That’s a good way of putting his style. Yeah, and Brock certainly became a great leader offensively who could pass the ball, not just manage the game as people thought originally. And Easton Stick has a nice arm to him, so he should keep developing as well and you know, not just be somebody who’s looking to manage the offense and not make mistakes, I mean, he’s going to be a leader going forward.”
BI: Back in 2010 when you got the position you’re in now, did you see this dynasty coming?
“Nope. Nobody could foresee this (laughs). I even made the mistake in 2011 of picking Sam Houston State in the championship game. This is just unbelievable and, unfortunately for the FCS, they’ve lost Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and now Coastal Carolina. The depth of teams that could win a national title isn’t quite as what it could be, but at the same time, the Bison have just separated themselves from everybody and they’re the standard. They certainly have everything in place, aside from a larger stadium, of course, to move up, but there’s something to be said about being the big fish in a small pond. You have to like where they’re at, whatever they decide.”
BI: Is this NDSU dynasty good for the FCS?
“I think so. Any time there’s a dynasty it makes people pay attention and people are always going to pay attention to the FBS first, so this gives people a reason to look at the FCS. I think it was a different kind of year, though. NDSU wasn’t number one throughout the year. There were a lot of upsets during the season, back and forth kind of scores. I felt like there was parity throughout the year.”
BI: How do you think cost-of-attendance is going to shake up the FCS?
“It makes a difference. If a recruit is torn between a couple schools and one school is offering that extra amount that can sway people. I think it is huge. I think NDSU is kind of doing it as a preemptive strike to what happens in the future. If those power conferences on the FBS level go off on their own and suddenly the five lower-tier FBS conferences are looking to merge with the Missouri Valley and some other conferences, hey, NDSU is right there in what they’re offering to student-athletes. If a school can afford it, it makes sense on their part, it’s going to make them even more attractive.”
BI: Not many schools have taken the dive to start paying COA, so when do you think more and more will implement this?
“I don’t think there’s a lot of schools on the FCS level that really want to do this. If their hands are forced by the Dakota schools, then at some point may look to do something themselves. I don’t think schools are anxious to do it because then you have to fund the rest of your sports. It’s not just a football issue. It becomes a big budget concern for schools. I don’t see it happening in large numbers in a quick way at least.”
BI: Are you sensing more players in the FCS are getting the respect from NFL scouts?
“I’ve found that it’s usually about 18 players a year on average from FCS schools that would get drafted, and then you know, there’s been years with 16 and years with over 20. The number seems to come in around 18 a year. But yeah, even watching playoff games in the NFL, I’ll see guys mentioned all the time about being from the FCS. They’re going to find you (laughs). Those scouts are going to find you of course. In this day and age, it’s hard to overlook anybody anymore. (Noah) Spence and Wentz should have really strong NFL careers. Wentz, really, has been impressive in how his stock has taken off and to see it rise when he’s injured. It’s tremendous, I mean, he can really throw the ball and have pinpoint passes. The FCS level has talent, there aren’t going to be many first rounders, but this year is an exception. When you’re looking for mid-level rounds, FCS is a good place to stock your team.”
BI: Wentz has been getting more and more hype as the season has progressed. Is this comparable to any other FCS quarterback in the recent past?
“(Joe) Flacco certainly. Flacco had a stronger arm than Carson. But I think Carson is helped by the fact that he’s so smart. He doesn’t get rattled, he’ll take hits and bounce back, he’ll bull you over but he’s a smart player and that helps him. He’s not in awe of any moment, showed no rust in my eyes in the championship game. If I’m comparing him, I’d say Flacco, his stock really rose and I mentioned Flacco had a stronger arm for sure.”
BI: How much did it help Wentz to perform in front of the NFL scouts one last time in the championship game?
“I think it didn’t show from a football standpoint, people already knew what he could do, but it really would’ve opened up questions about him if he didn’t play because it had been 12 weeks, he was originally assessed for 6-8. Now, obviously a medical opinion could be off, and the recovery time but it really would’ve stood out to pro scouts at least in my eyes, ‘Why isn’t this kid playing after 12 weeks? It’s his final game? It’s his championship game?’ He’d argued he always wants to play. It would have been a negative for sure if he hadn’t played, especially when the Senior Bowl is three weeks away. He’s not in awe of the moment so he’ll do fine down there, I believe.”