North Dakota State wins its ninth national championship in the last ten years. After two regular-season losses, a young Bison team with 23 freshmen and sophomores on its two-deep depth chart rallied behind a freshman quarterback, its traditionally strong ground game and a resurgent defense to end up in that same familiar spot on the stage at Toyota Stadium raising the national championship trophy.
“I hate those guys. I really, really hate those guys,” said South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier following NDSU’s win over their fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference power in Texas, revenging a loss at the hands of the Jackrabbits in the regular-season finale. Echoing former South Dakota coach Dave Triplett, whose Coyotes lost to the Bison 27-7 in the 1986 national championship game, Stiegelmeier pulled no punches.“I wish to hell they would get out of the FCS.”
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll know how well this prediction and glimpse into the crystal ball ages. Most folks who follow the FCS – from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Huntsville, Texas, over to Cheney, Washington and across to Brookings, South Dakota – say the reigning dynastic champ is vulnerable. Ask Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere, the favorite for the Walter Payton award, and his coach Aaron Best, just how “down” NDSU is after the Bison limited the high-flying Eagles offense to 64 yards in the second half en route to a 42-20 playoff win at the Fargodome. The Bison rushed 57 times for 422 yards in that one. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of NDSU’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“They’re getting better, and they’re starting to understand what Bison Pride is all about,” said NDSU coach Matt Entz after the first-round playoff victory.
Caveat emptor, buyer beware, anyone doubting the team that’s won eight of the last nine national titles may be in for a harsh reality. Young? Yes. But talented? Oh baby, check please, more than we appreciate right now. Or, as linebackers coach and former NDSU great Grant Olson told the Forum’s Jeff Kolpack, “We’re not recruiting very many Grant Olsons anymore,” instead, “We’re recruiting the Jabril Coxes, the Jasir Coxes, and the James Kaczors as much as possible.”
Translation: the level of athlete the Bison are getting across the board is on par with FBS programs, not the vast majority of their FCS brethren. That’s from a guy, in Olson, who was a record-setting All-American linebacker that won three national championships and was part of a team that hosted ESPN’s College GameDay after beating defending Big XII champ Kansas State.
Olson’s point was this. The Bison have some awfully good young players that have their coaching staff salivating at what the future looks like. That future includes the next few weeks. The Bison are in the proverbial hunt for more championship hardware despite three of their alums and would-be players in Trey Lance, Dillon Radunz and Jabril Cox being high-round NFL draft picks. The Bison have a real shot to get back to Frisco despite the mid-season loss of their all-conference cornerback, Josh Hayes, to the transfer portal. To pile on, NDSU lost their top two tailbacks entering the spring, Seth Wilson and Kobe Johnson, to injuries during the course of Missouri Valley play. The Herd also had to deal without having one of their starting receivers, and one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league, Phoenix Sproles, who was unable to play this spring because of injury.
As of this writing, the Bison have a playoff date with familiar foe Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals. Should NDSU advance, it’s a trip to said Harrisonburg to dance with James Madison or an in-state winner-take-all cage match with the University of North Dakota for a chance at the title belt. All that during a challenging spring season with the aforementioned 23 underclassmen playing prominent roles, guys leaving to the NFL or via transfer portal and key injuries. “Our young guys are our depth. It’s been a good thing, there have been growing pains at times, but it will all payoff in the long run,” said Entz of the youth movement. That may even be an understatement from the old ball coach.
Here’s why you should be bullish on the Bison. As those freshmen and sophomores get more repetitions and games under their belts, they’re getting better. Case in point, redshirt freshman Dom Jones, NDSU’s free safety. Jones had a game-changing interception against Barriere when the Herd led 21-20 early in the third quarter off a tipped ball that led to a Bison touchdown. Jones and his defensive back buddies shut down Barriere and his big wide receivers in the final thirty minutes. One of those buddies, true freshman Courtney Eubanks, had no qualms putting the hurt on the Eagles while matching up against their 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-3 receivers. Eastern Washington’s receivers were averaging 387 yards in their six games before playing the Bison. “If you were able to see the all-22, you would see Courtesy Eubanks isn’t afraid of anybody,” said Entz, referring to the coach’s game film versus the Eagles.
On the other side of the ball, NDSU’s true freshman quarterback Cam Miller and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jack Rock made their first collegiate starts under the bright lights of a playoff game no less. Two other freshmen, running backs Dom Gonnella and Jalen Bussey, combined for 306 rushing yards on 33 carries, good for 9.27 yards per carry against EWU.
“I’d say nasty, dirty, stinky, nasty is what we preach all week,” said Gonnella, who was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks last summer. Along with their other backfield mate, Hunter Luepke, a sophomore with six touchdowns in five games, it’s déjà vu with another young NDSU backfield from the early 1980s that featured the likes of Bentrim, Stark and Molstre. Those young guys went on to play in four national championship games, winning three.
“We’ve got a good group of kids right now that are really excited to get another chance to play together,” said Entz. Bison fans should be excited, too. If this group of young talent sticks together, coupled with the veteran playmakers on the roster like Christian Watson, Josh Babicz, Noah Gindorff, Michael Tutsie, Jackson Hankey, Spencer Waege, etc., etc., it won’t be too long before everyone else in the FCS is wishing the Bison finally at long last take their ball and go someplace else, decades after Triplett’s wish back in 1986.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!