Photo By Bruce Crummy
Enjoy this journey while it lasts. You can find all sorts of quotes and wisdom on Google about savoring the journey and appreciating the ride. Much of it is cliché. But cliché be damned, I’m telling you right now, enjoy this year’s North Dakota State football team. They are not only national championship contender good, they are historically good – as in is this the best team in school history, good. Lest we get ahead of ourselves, I’ll stress, there is a lot of work remaining for the 2018 Bison.
They have to navigate a road to Frisco that always presents challenges where one bad day can send you home. Winning championships isn’t easy, despite the regularity of which the Bison are doing it. But, all that aside, over the next two months, you’re going to start hearing this question and comparison come up as it will undoubtedly be asked of Bison head coach Chris Klieman, his players and members of another NDSU team: is this the greatest NDSU football team ever?
You remember that 2013 group. The one that went 15 – 0 on the way to a national championship, beat Kansas State for one of the biggest, if not the biggest, win in school history that led to a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay. The guys that outscored opponents by an average score of 38.7 to 11.3 with names like Jensen, Williams, Smith, Heagle, Ojuri, Crockett, Olson, Dudzik, Emanuel and Turner. You know, that group of college kids that didn’t blink when their head coach took a different job after the first playoff game. The laser-focused, on a mission, bunch of guys whose closest playoff game was a 28-point win in the national championship game against Towson. I mean, for goodness’ sake, the backup quarterback on that team was some guy named Wentz.
The conventional thinking at the time was there will never be another team, any team, anywhere in the FCS, that good, nay, that great, that excellent for a long, long time. So much for that. The Bison have assembled another team that, to date, has been every bit as dominating as the legendary 2013 team. Here we are, a mere five years later looking at another Bison team daring us to ask the question and make the comparison. Just for fun, through eight games, this year’s Bison are outperforming the dominance of the 2013 team.
Led by guys like Stick, Shepherd, Grimsley, Anderson, Dunn, Allison, Marlette, Johnson, Cox and Menard, NDSU is outscoring opponents by an average of 40.4 to 12.9 points. That’s 0.1 points per game better than the 2013 Bison. Games are turning into snoozers where the Bison breeze to large halftime leads of several touchdowns and the second half is never in doubt. You can look at the metrics and statistical data up and down. It points to the same conclusion. This team is every bit as dominant, in every category, as the great 2013 Bison.
They also pass the eyeball test. Even the casual fan without a football PhD can appreciate the way NDSU is dismantling even nationally-ranked opponents. No. 7 nationally-ranked Illinois State? Ho-hum, just your standard 28-0 lead in the third quarter where most fans adjourned to Herd & Horns or elsewhere to catch the second half. The always tough UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa? How’s about a 28-0 point barrage in the fourth quarter for a 25-point win over the Panthers. A resurgent South Dakota squad fighting for its playoff lives at home? The Bison had a 21-0 lead after the first quarter that had long-time coach Bob Nielson tipping his hat.
“The thing is when I watch them, it’s hard to find any chinks in the armor. I don’t want to jinx them because I have a lot of friends on that staff, but they’re solid. They play good defense, they’re good in the kicking game and they’re probably a little more balanced offensively than even the last couple years of NDSU teams,” said Nielson after the Bison beat his Coyotes 59-14, eliminating South Dakota from playoff contention. What Nielson said next was what every other coach and observer in the FCS has to be thinking. “It’s going to take a really good team to beat [the Bison] that’s going to have to play really well.”
I’ll add this observation to Nielson’s take. If NDSU is on its game, just like the 2013 team that rolled playoff foes by an average score of 43.25 to 10.5, nobody is going to touch them. If the Bison play their game, there isn’t a team in the FCS, and even the lion’s share of teams in the FBS, that has a shot to beat them. Heading into November, the Sagarin ratings have NDSU as the No. 22 team in all of college football, including the big boys. The Bison are one spot behind Wisconsin and ahead of historically good programs like Michigan State, Miami, Stanford, Southern California and Florida State.
Through the first nine weeks of the season, they are like their 2013 forebears in this regard. They are steamrolling opponents. The scary part for the rest of the FCS heading into the postseason? The Bison are actually getting better each week. You can see it. As crazy as that sounds, a team that is beating it’s opponents by an average of 27.5 points hasn’t peaked yet.
The Bison have elite playmakers at every single position on the field. They have the best player in the FCS in quarterback Easton Stick. If you had to build a football team around one player in the FCS, you’d go with Stick for both his tangible playmaking abilities and his intangible leadership skills. For Walter Payton voters, watch his games against South Dakota, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and South Dakota State. If you think some guy with gaudy passing numbers is a better quarterback than Stick, you’re not a very sharp football mind.
But if you’re into statistics, Stick leads the country in the statistic that matters most – wins. Stick is 42 – 3 as a starting quarterback. The guy that will probably win the Walter Payton award, Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges, already has four losses this year alone, one more than Stick has in four years as a starter.
The other position groups for NDSU are not only skilled, they’re incredibly deep. The Bison rotate seven or eight guys on the defensive front. Ten different guys had rushing attempts against USD. In the passing game, Darrius Shepherd is an elite playmaker that deserves to be an All-American. Jabril Cox will be playing on Sundays in a couple years and is one of the best linebackers in the FCS. Robbie Grimsley is one of the best to play his position in school history. On special teams, Garret Wegner is a weapon, and kicker Cam Pedersen is as reliable as a trusted pair of running shoes. I could go on, but you get the idea. There is not one discernible weakness on this team. Their team chemistry and culture is off the charts good. They’re unselfish. They’re well-coached. They’re a complete football team in every sense of the word and an absolute joy to watch.
There will be plenty of time later to have the debate over whether this is the best NDSU team ever, should the Bison win another national championship. But for now, I’m telling you, enjoy this team and enjoy the ride. It’s shaping up to be something historically special. Teams like this, even as accustomed as Bison fans are to winning national championships, are rare at any level.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!