Photos by Hillary Ehlen
It’s 582 miles by car from Minot, North Dakota, to Bozeman, Montana. At least in good weather. This particular day, Friday, December 3, 2010, the conditions in western North Dakota and eastern Montana were anything but good weather. It was nasty. We had no business driving. No travel advisories warned us the better idea was to stay home. The winds roared, effortlessly throwing snow like glistening pieces of blinding confetti across the treeless landscape. Visibility meant squinting for outlines of cars ahead and keeping your own vehicle between the white highway lines. That menacing glare ice we’re all too familiar with in this part of the country lurked camouflaged on the highway. The roads were the type where you turn the radio volume down to focus. There’s “white-knuckle” driving, then there’s “what the hell were we thinking” driving. This qualified as the latter.
Too late to turn back. In more ways than one as it turns out. North Dakota State was making its first-ever FCS playoff appearance. After backing into the postseason following an ugly loss to Missouri State in the regular season finale, the Bison were shutout 3-0, NDSU found new life. They won the school’s first-ever playoff game at the Fargodome against Robert Morris. I was a year removed from graduating law school and working as a judicial law clerk in Minot for the judges of the old Northwest Judicial District consisting of the northwestern counties of the Peace Garden State, including the cities of Minot, Stanley, Crosby and Williston. Minot, the Magic City, is only a hop, skip and a jump to western Montana. Like I said, it’s only 582 miles from Minot to Bozeman, and the Bison were set to play Montana State.
Sometime during that first week of December 2010, my roommate, Chris Wunderlich, one of the many great Bison from Velva, N.D., and I decided we’d take that Friday off from work and drive to Bozeman for the second round playoff game against the No. 4-seeded, and heavily favored, Bobcats. Anyone who made that drive into Big Sky country can attest to its harrowing conditions. On Friday morning, before embarking, I stopped at Cenex on the south edge of Minot to grab a coffee. The semis were lined up two and three deep waiting out the weather. Who could have known that this game, this playoff run, would be ground zero for a historic college football dynasty. Our motivation was much, much simpler – we saw a reason to road trip to Bozeman for a few beers in a ski town and watch the Bison a few weeks from Christmas.
In fact, I covered the game for this magazine. Not before partaking in a little tailgating, anyway. The air was bitterly crisp, a balmy 17 degrees on December 4, 2010, with the sun shining bright. The mountains rose in the background behind the stadium like a postcard. We were jam-packed into the press box at Bobcats Stadium. The accommodations were so tight, you had to literally tip-toe a small ledge behind the tiny seats they parked us in to get out of the row. As it’s wont to do, history, unannounced and unexpected, started unfolding before our eyes on the edge of the Bridger Mountains. When Montana State scored a touchdown to take a 17–14 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, the press box erupted with cheers from the Bobcat faithful.
That would be the last cheer from the home folks. In one of the most dominating single quarter performances in the history of North Dakota State, the Bison scored the next four touchdowns on their way to a convincing 42-17 win. The Herd outscored Montana State 28-7 in the final quarter. DJ McNorton rushed for 207 yards and four touchdowns, setting an NDSU playoff record, besting Tony Satter’s 176-yard effort against Pittsburg State in the 1990 NCAA Division II semifinals. Nobody in that press box could possibly have known the seeds for a college football dynasty were planted in Big Sky country. I’ll never forget sitting in the postgame press conference somewhere inside the stadium.
Everyone was a bit dumbfounded as to what just happened. Joe Lund, a sophomore offensive lineman for the Bison, sat at the front of the room. Media members peppered him with questions about NDSU’s unexpected playoff run. It may have been unexpected to us. It wasn’t to Lund, his teammates or coaches. Lund would go on to win the Rimington Award his senior year in 2012, given to the best center at each level of college football. NDSU was on its way to back-to-back national titles at that point.
Lund said having tasted postseason success, the Bison were hungry for more. Turns out, so were its fans. After the win, that Saturday night in Bozeman, a couple hundred Bison fans gathered in a downtown ski bar to celebrate and drink the place dry. It was a sort of prelude to what would come.
One week later, we all know what happened. I wasn’t anywhere near a press box for the infamous quarterfinal game at Eastern Washington where a bogus replay call set the table for the eight years, and six – going on seven – national championships that followed. No, I was at Chubs Pub for that one, with several former Bison players.
Every NDSU fan remembers where they were at for that moment and its immediate aftermath. Along with the frustration, though, there was another feeling. Hope. The sense that something had changed. Somehow, a team that went 3-8 in 2009, a team that played to a half-full Fargodome throughout 2009 and 2010, with a roster chock full of young talent, was on the brink. The expectations going into that 2011 season were different.
That 2010 team, and its 15 seniors, set the stage. They deserve credit, and deserve to be remembered. Turns out, they woke a sleeping giant that has dominated college football like few others before them. And it all started on a few December days back in 2010. Who knew. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!