Photos Courtesy of Darren Gibbins
From day one, the 2014 North Dakota State football team was on a mission. The mission? To silence the critics who thought they didn’t have the ability to win a fourth consecutive national championship. To overcome the naysayers that said they lost too much and didn’t have the personnel to add yet another championship ring to already crowded fists beaming with golden reminders of what they had previously accomplished.
So it should come as no surprise that before the opening lines of 2014 were even drawn, in his introductory press conference as NDSU’s newest head coach, Chris Klieman gave us all a taste of the mission his team was about to embark on. “I have a vision for where this program is going to continue to go,” said Klieman, a native of Waterloo, Iowa. “We’ve got a great program here. You don’t rebuild at North Dakota State, you continue to reload.” And reload the Bison did, defeating Illinois State in a thrilling championship game, 29–27, to claim their fourth straight FCS title.
While the season was as remarkable as their fourth title was dramatic, the Bison fully expected to be back in Frisco to add more hardware to the crowded trophy cases in the football offices at the Fargodome. The naysayers only added fuel to the fire. “With all the naysayers and everyone saying we lost so many, we kind of put a chip on our shoulder and that was something we needed,” explained senior running back John Crockett, who set a school record with 1,994 rushing yards this season. “When we heard that, it was great, it was motivating. I feel that was the driving force of why we’re here in the fourth in a row.”
Crockett’s voice was almost defiant, a rare “we told you so” from a group that was as focused a team as you’ll find in all of college football. From seniors on down to freshmen, the entire team played with that chip on their shoulder. “We had a chip on our shoulders. We did it,” said RJ Urzendowski, the talented freshman who led all receives in the championship game with five catches for 100 yards, including, arguably, the biggest catch in school history, the 33-yarder from Carson Wentz to setup Wentz’s game winning touchdown run the next play. “They [seniors] led us.”
From his very first meeting with the team last January, Klieman made it clear he expected the Bison to be back in Texas for a shot at the four-peat. “I remember Coach Klieman said at our first team meeting we fully expected to be back in Frisco,” said Kyle Emanuel, the Buck Buchanan Award winner as the best defensive player in the FCS, following a 35–3 semifinal win over Sam Houston State. “[We] put in a lot of hard work, a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys that were motivated and here we are.”
For his part, a month before that first team meeting, in the same introductory press conference where he trumpeted the clarion that the Bison don’t rebuild, they reload, Klieman knew that his team was up for the challenge. “It’s obvious our kids love challenges and accept challenges as well.” It was no easy road for the Bison, though. Winning a championship, at any level, isn’t easy, especially doing it for a fourth time in a row. Which helps explain why no Division I team had won four straight national titles in over 90 years.
The Bison, once again, had to run the gauntlet of a brutal Missouri Valley Football Conference that sent a record five teams to the FCS playoffs and finished with six teams ranked in the final FCS poll released on Monday.
The Bison also had to overcome as devastating a rash of injuries as they’ve endured during any of their prior championship runs. Travis Beck, a four-year starter and all-conference linebacker, went down with a season-ending injury in the regular season finale. The Bison went without top wide receiver and deep threat, Zach Vraa, for a large part of the playoffs. Even the punter/kickoff specialist was dinged up when Ben LeCompte injured his quad. Not to mention that we’ll never know the severity of the heavy bumps and bruises that likely afflicted every man on the team’s roster – particularly seniors like Christian Dudzik and Colten Heagle, both four-year starters who have played in the equivalent of five season’s worth of games in their careers.
But, someway, somehow, this team overcame it all and proved the naysayers wrong. They rallied from fourth quarter deficits three times in the playoffs, including in the national championship game, to hoist another trophy into the Texas sky. “To be able to go out there with those group of guys, the never say die mentality that each and every one of my teammates possesses, that’s what is so special about our university,” said Crockett. “It’s a band of brothers going out there and basically fighting for each other and not wanting to let the other down because they know the other one is going to do everything he can not to let the other one down.”
Consider it mission accomplished. And you can bet when the team gathers for their first team meeting of 2015, they’ll have another, similar mission on their minds much like that last one.