Restaurants and bars in the Dallas suburbs of Frisco and Plano should have given out throat lozenges and heart medication along with the drinks they were slinging to the thousands of green and yellow clad Bison fans that descended upon them Saturday night. Earlier, North Dakota State staked its claim to history with an unprecedented fourth straight national championship with a pulse-pounding 29–27 victory over conference rival Illinois State at Toyota Stadium.
While many Bison fans lost their voices, and had their hearts racing, they’ll gladly trade the few minutes of suspense to add another year to the national championship banner hanging in the south end zone of the Fargodome. The fourth straight FCS title marks the school’s 12th national championship, the previous eight coming when NDSU played at the Division II level. This one came with a little more drama than the rest.
After holding the lead most of the day, the Bison suddenly found themselves trailing when Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson raced 58 yards through the NDSU defense to give ISU a 27–23 lead with only 1:38 left in the game. There was no panic, though, on the sideline of the reigning kings of the FCS. “With our guys you never saw any doubt in their mind, you never saw panic in their eyes,” said head coach Chris Klieman.
Starting at their own 22-yard line, the Bison took six plays to march 78 yards in decisive fashion, capped by Carson Wentz’s five-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds remaining to regain the lead.
“When you have the success that we’ve had the past four years now, guys just know how to win,” explained Klieman, who was in his first championship game as a head coach. The previous three seasons he was an assistant under Craig Bohl, who left Fargo for Wyoming following last season. “And when you know how to win, you just always feel you have that chance, if you can get that last possession, you have that chance.”
The Bison had their chance thanks in large part to the heroics of true freshman receiver RJ Urzendowski, who hauled in three passes from Wentz in what would turn out to be the biggest drive in program history, including catches of 32 and 33 yards. The latter came as the Bison faced 3rd & 10 from the ISU 38-yard line, setting up Wentz’s touchdown run. “And the second one, quite frankly, was a terrible throw. RJ made a heck of a play,” said Wentz. It was, fittingly, the exact same pass play, to the same receiver, that NDSU used to beat another conference rival, South Dakota State, in the closing minutes of a second-round playoff game in early December.
On the ensuing Redbirds’ drive, linebacker Esley Thorton secured the Bison victory when he intercepted Roberson around midfield with eight seconds left, sending the heavily partisan Bison crowd into pandemonium. The interception served as an exclamation point to an already historic season that saw the Bison overcome naysayers who felt the team had lost too much – between a head coach, most of their coaching staff, along with 24 seniors – to end their year raising another championship trophy on the now-familiar stage in Toyota Stadium.
“If we would have came here as true freshmen and told people our goal was to win four national championships, our goal is to have College GameDay come to Fargo two times, people would have laughed at us,” said Thorton, who began his career at NDSU as a quarterback before being moved to linebacker in 2012. “Before the season if we would have said we’re going to win our fourth national championship after losing 24 seniors, I think people would have laughed at us too. It says something about our guys, not just seniors, but all the way down to the bottom. We had freshmen making huge plays out there today and the past players down here at the game too.”
Those seniors, by the way, finished their careers at NDSU a jaw-dropping 58–3 with four national titles. The math is as simple as it is mind-boggling. They won more national championships in their careers, four, than they had losses, three. It’s a feat, four straight titles, that hasn’t been accomplished by a Division I football team since California won four in a row from 1920 to 1923. “You never dream of coming to college and winning four straight national championships, only losing three games,” said linebacker Carlton Littlejohn, who led the Bison with eight tackles. “That’s something you only dream about. Something that only happens in video games. To experience that right now is unbelievable.”
That was the story of this team. They would not be denied. No way, no how. “Great resolve by our guys. That was a great football team we were able to beat,” Klieman said, summing up a team that would not end their season any other way than raising another championship trophy in Texas. “It was a game of making plays and we were fortunate enough to make just one more play.”
For a program steeped in championship tradition, the win shows the Bison have no plans to ride off into the sunset anytime soon. With the four-peat in hand, NDSU has its eyes set on a new goal – “one for the thumb,” as in a fifth straight championship. “It says a lot about the program. I think coming into the season everyone looked at us like our backs were against the wall,” concluded Thorton. “I think we really proved to people that this is a special program, not just these last few years but for years to come. To lose what we did, and reload how we did, and to show people we’re still competing at the highest level is huge for the program.”