Photos by Paul Flessland
The whispers reverberated across the Football Championship Subdivision landscape after North Dakota State dropped their first home game since 2012 to South Dakota in mid-October. The unexpected loss put the Bison at 4-2, and, to many, it looked like the race to the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas, was now anyone’s game. From Normal, Ill., to Richmond, Va., fans and pundits alike pounced. The mighty Bison, winners of the last four national championships, lacked the firepower to contend for a record fifth consecutive title. On top of the loss, following the game, NDSU learned they’d be without star quarterback Carson Wentz, who injured his wrist and would be sidelined six to eight weeks.
Suddenly, the preseason favorite to get back to Frisco faced questions of whether they’d even get a first-round playoff bye, let alone home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Panicked hotels, bars, and restaurants in the north Dallas area faced the prospect of a bleak New Years’ celebration without 20,000 Bison fans descending down I-29 in what has become an annual pilgrimage. Somewhere, Frisco’s mayor, Maher Maso, was offering up prayers that his adopted team would regain their form.
Just as quick as NDSU looked vulnerable, the Bison have regained that championship form. The Herd has roared back from the USD loss with three straight wins, the first two on the road, the last one a dominating effort versus a good Western Illinois team at the once-again friendly confines of the Fargodome. The Bison controlled all phases of the game, start to finish, serving notice on the rest of the FCS with their 59-7 demolition of the Leathernecks. That notice reads: To all those concerned, NDSU plans on having a big, big say in the FCS championship discussion come selection Sunday in less than two weeks. The champ, having been knocked to the canvas by USD, is back to packing a big punch.
“The last two games, you could tell everything was starting to click a lot better with us,” said senior tackle Joe Haeg. “This game everything was hitting on all cylinders and I think that’s why we played such a complete game and we just need to keep going with it.” The return to winning ways has started upfront with the offensive line, which has paved the road for 971 rushing yards in the last three contests. Oh, and that new quarterback, Easton Stick, the redshirt freshman from Omaha, Neb., hasn’t been too bad, either. In fact, Stick is emerging as one of the top playmakers in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. So much so, the Bison will have a difficult decision to make if Wentz is able to return during a playoff run.
“Offensive line played really well again, they’re playing at a high level in the run game and the throw game,” said Stick, who has rushed for 340 yards, thrown for another 461 yards, and accounted for nine touchdowns in his three starts in place of the injured Wentz. “He’s getting so much better, you can tell he’s getting more confident,” explained Haeg. The freshman earned high praise from the All-American senior. “You can tell he’s developing as a leader in the huddle as well and everything, he’s playing some really good ball now.”
Indeed, the Bison put together their most complete performance of the season against the Leathernecks. Before you chalk up the win over Western Illinois as coming against a lowly Missouri Valley foe, consider this. They defeated Northern Iowa on the road the same weekend the Bison fell to USD. The next weekend, WIU gave Illinois State all it could handle until midway through the fourth quarter when the Redbirds pulled away for a 48-28 win that was much closer than the final score. WIU was fighting for their playoff lives on Saturday and were dominated.
Sporting sharp, new, green “Harvest helmets” for the Harvest Bowl, complete with a wheat spike running down the middle, the Bison rout started their first drive of the afternoon. Stick connected with senior wide receiver Zach Vraa on what may have been the most impressive catch this season in all of college football. Vraa, going airborne and facing towards the line of scrimmage, reached around and over a defender’s back, plucking the ball in a single motion. Vraa then pulled the ball over the defender’s head, turned about face, and glided the remaining 10 yards into the end zone to give the Bison an early 7-0 lead.
The 41-yard play was the 26th touchdown reception in Vraa’s career, tying him for the all-time lead in school history. Talk about a memorable way to literally and figuratively climb the record book. The catch landed Vraa on ESPN “SportsCenter’s” Top Ten plays of the day. The Washington Post ran a story on the catch with the headline: “NDSU’s Zach Vraa makes an absurd catch around stunned defender.” For all the well-deserved hoopla about the catch, though, the story behind the catch is also worth noting. It was an audible. Stick noticed a linebacker on Vraa and changed the play at the line before the snap. “We knew the coverage, we changed the route, we saw something that we liked,” Stick said. The freshman trusted Vraa to do the rest. “I was just throwing it up there, hoping he would make a play.”
Bison head coach Chris Klieman took notice, too, describing the evolution of his young quarterback during the postgame press conference. “He’s seeing pictures better and better, meaning pre-snap what the defense is in, can he get us into another play, can he make the right read on the jet sweeps,” said Klieman, referring to Stick’s ability to handle the nuances of the Bison offense. “I thought he threw a couple really good balls, that he’s feeling more confident in his ability to throw the football. I think each game, each practice, that young man continues to gain confidence.”
Minutes after Vraa’s jaw-dropping catch, the defense joined in the big-play picture. Pierre Gee-Tucker picked off a Trenton Norvell pass and raced untouched 36-yards down the home sideline for NDSU’s first defensive touchdown of the season, giving the Bison a 14-0 lead midway through the opening quarter. Things snowballed from there, with NDSU building an insurmountable 38-0 halftime lead. “That was the best half we’ve played this season,” Klieman said. “Those things are so important that you’re able to capitalize because that’s how you build that momentum, and then once it gets going in the Fargodome with our crowd, it can really snowball for a team.”
How impressive was the win? WIU head coach Bob Nielson described it as one of the most impressive performances he’s seen in his two-plus decades of coaching. “I tell you what, I’ve coached a lot of football and in my 23 years, I can tell you if they play like that, I don’t know if anybody can beat them.” Bison fans had reason to continue celebrating after the game. Four of the five teams ranked ahead of NDSU entering the weekend were upset. Illinois State (No. 2), Chattanooga (No. 3), Eastern Washington (No. 4), and Richmond (No. 5) all lost. The end result is NDSU controlling its own destiny for at least a share of their fifth straight Missouri Valley Football Conference crown, and, perhaps more importantly, if the Bison win out, they are likely to receive the No. 2 overall seed in the playoffs, guaranteeing themselves home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Next up for the Bison is another team battling for their playoff lives, Youngstown State, led by former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. “We control our own destiny again,” concluded Klieman. “That gives us an opportunity to go on the road against a really good Youngstown State team and see what we can do. We have to have a great week of preparation as well because I know Youngstown has unbelievable ability and talent, and it will be another four-quarter game.” Kickoff is at 1:00 p.m., with TV coverage on the North Dakota NBC Network and ESPN3, with the radio call on 790AM KFGO.