Another February, another Bison Illustrated championship issue. It’s like the annual pilgrimage to Frisco each January – it’s become habit, but it surely never gets old. With the 29–27 victory over conference foe Illinois State, North Dakota State did something never done in the history of the FCS by winning four straight titles. The four-peat. The Quad Squad. A combined 58–3 record over the course of the four title seasons. That’s more championships in a four-year span than losses. It’s a team record without equal in modern college football. Dynasty, Bison be thy name.
It’s all the more remarkable if you consider this: NDSU’s first year of FCS playoff eligibility was 2008. That means in only seven years, the Bison have firmly established themselves as the best program in the country, bar none. Nobody else is even close. Chris Fowler, host of ESPN’s College GameDay, tweeted on the dramatic championship win, “Much awe and admiration for the championship DNA of NDSU football – tremendous drive to win 4th straight FCS crown! Congrats Bison!” The show’s executive producer, honorary Fargoan Lee Fitting, anticipated yet another trip to GameDay’s second home, downtown Fargo. “Wow. Bizon do it again. Congrats! Can’t wait to get back to Fargo. #1forthethumbisnext.”
If your mind isn’t totally blown away by that, nothing short of landing on Mars would do it for you. If GameDay comes back next fall, the Bison will have had as many visits (three) from the biggest show in college football in a two-year span as total losses in four years. You know how many GameDay visits our neighbors to the east in Gopherland have in their history? Zero. GameDay hasn’t been to Nebraska since 2007 and last traveled to the University of Florida in 2012.
Even five years ago, it would have been more likely for me to land a date with Katy Perry. Seriously. Although, Perry was a guest picker on GameDay last fall. Maybe she would come to Fargo, again. Wasn’t she just here for a concert? I’ll do the Fargo Monthly interview this time, fellas. Putting that aside, enjoy it, folks. It’s rare air, even for a program as steeped in tradition and success as NDSU. Our team and university are in a national limelight that’s only enjoyed by few programs – without peer on the FCS level and unrivaled by many FBS conferences like the Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt – and there is no indication that we’re going anywhere, anytime soon.
The last three years, after winning titles, we’ve asked ourselves, “How can it possibly get any better than this?” And each year, it manages to do exactly that –it gets better and better and better. I suppose the only thing better than two GameDay visits is three; and the only thing better than a four-peat is a fifth straight, or, as Fitting says, one for the thumb. Following the previous three titles, I’ve shared what I thought were the keys for the Bison getting back to Frisco and adding another year to the championship banner hanging in the north end zone of the Fargodome. In that tradition, here are my annual “Swany’s Keys to Getting Back to Frisco.”
By Joshua A. Swanson
5. Aerial defenses
The Bison will need able play from whoever replaces Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik, the best safety duo in the FCS the last two seasons. As strong as they were in pass coverage, Heagle and Dudzik were rock solid in rush defense. Chris Board, Tre Dempsey and Andrew Smith were listed on the two-deep depth chart at the end of the regular season and are among favorites heading into spring ball. Dempsey had a key interception to clinch the South Dakota State playoff game and Board played well when he got some mid-season reps. In NDSU’s Tampa 2 defense, strong play from the safety positions is critical. Also worth mentioning is finding replacements for the trio of Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn and Esley Thorton at linebacker.
4. Just kickin’ it
Mr. Clutch, Adam Keller, was automatic from 40-yards in and dependable from 50 yards. Keller’s three field goals against the Redbirds in the championship game were difference makers. The four-toed sensation broke FCS single-season records for kickers with 145 points and field goals made (34). In close games, Keller’s leg was often the difference. He drilled five against Montana. While a strong offense will likely lead to fewer field goal attempts for his replacement in 2015, each title team had a reliable kicker.
3. Senior Leadership
Every championship team in the four-peat featured a senior class that paved the way, limited off-field distractions and kept the team on task. This was the single most overlooked component by the experts when they wrote off the Bison going into 2014. Every program graduates guys, but not every program has leaders waiting in the wings to replace them. From vocal leaders to the locker room guys, the Bison need the steady hand of veteran leadership. There are many teams full of talent that fall short because they lack strong leadership. The big question: who joins Carson Wentz in this role when the Bison open the 2015 season with a tough road test in Missoula against perennial heavyweight Montana?
2. Next up
NDSU has been “Tailback U” for decades before moving to Division I. The Bison rushing attack has featured a 1,000-yard back every year since 2003. In the FCS championship seasons, with the exception of John Crockett’s role as the workhorse in 2014 where he ran 1,994 yards for a single-season school record, two backs topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The names and numbers run deep. From Chad Stark, Tony Satter and Lamar Gordon to Kyle Steffes, Tyler Roehl, Sam Ojuri and Crockett, the Bison offense relies on strong rushers with game-changing playmaking ability. King Frazier and Chase Morlock showed flashes spelling Crockett and are early favorites, along with promising sophomore Lance Dunn, to be the one-two punch carrying this tradition-rich position group.
1. Staying hungry
Part and parcel with strong senior leadership, the Bison haven’t fallen victim to complacency and “fat cat” syndrome after their previous championships. Focus is a word we’ve heard associated with these championship teams time and time again. This program is used to having the target on their back, but nobody in college football history, any division, has won five in a row since the late 1800s. How do the Bison respond to that. Can they stay focused? While there is plenty of talent coming back, especially on the offensive side of the ball, NDSU needs another stellar offseason and chip on the shoulder mentality if they’re to earn the “one for the thumb” and notch the penta-peat.