Photos by Paul Flessland
For anyone thinking that North Dakota State’s quarterfinal win over Northern Iowa was the de facto national championship game, think again. NDSU isn’t in Frisco, not yet anyway.
Bison head coach Chris Klieman quickly nipped that talk in the bud in short order during the postgame press conference following NDSU’s 23-13 victory against the Panthers. “It was a quarterfinal game,” said Klieman, matter-of-factly, with the laser-eyed focus of a guy that knows his team faces a very good, and very determined Richmond team in the national semifinals.
So, keep in mind, before you start talking about a reunion with our friends at Scruffy Duffies, Ringo’s Pub, Wild Pitch, or any other place in Plano’s Legacy area, the Bison have more work to do. Just how good are the Spiders? Good enough that the Bison didn’t waste any time reviewing and reveling in the UNI highlights. “We’re moving on quickly to Richmond, we didn’t even watch the Northern Iowa game with our guys,” Klieman said. Okay, chalk that up to coach speak, right? Nope. For any NDSU fan harboring thoughts that Friday night will be a coronation, check that at the Fargodome door when you’re walking through security on Friday night.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference is often billed as the best, and most physical, conference in the Football Championship Subdivision. Rightfully so. The Bison have won the last four national championships. Last year was an all-MVFC final between NDSU and Illinois State. For the past two seasons, the MVFC led all leagues with five teams making the playoffs each year, including this year’s bracket-of-death featuring NDSU, South Dakota State, UNI, Western Illinois, and ISU. All that Valley talk didn’t faze Richmond down in Normal, Ill., against the favored Redbirds.
In their quarterfinal date, the Spiders shut down the dual-headed monster of Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich on their way to a 39-27 win. You remember Roberson and Coprich, the duo that has sliced, diced, stirred and fried MVFC defenses the last two seasons. Illinois State rushed for 265 yards per game in conference play this year. Against Richmond, they mustered a whopping 78 yards on the ground. That should get your attention.
Coprich is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best player in the FCS. He’s also second in the nation in rushing, averaging 151.3 yards per contest in the aforementioned toughest league in the land. Coprich got caught in the Spiders’ web, managing only 30 yards. Next to him in that web, much like Frodo ala Lord of the Rings, was Roberson. The dual-threat quarterback and All-American, who was fourth in the MVFC in rushing with his 71.9 yards per game, was kept in check at 36 yards.
“They had an excellent plan and were gap sound,” explained Klieman on Richmond shutting down the vaunted ISU ground attack. The Spiders completely took the Redbirds out of their game plan. “In talking to the Illinois State guys that I do know, when they got behind, they really had to abandon some of their run gameplan, and I don’t think they wanted to do that. When they got behind they ended up having to throw it more.”
Unlike their first two playoff opponents, this game won’t be a regular season rematch for the Bison. Not only will it not be a rematch, NDSU and Richmond have never played each other. While a new opponent is a refreshing change for Bison fans tired of the FCS Selection Committee continually sending conference opponents to Fargo the last few Decembers, it presents a unique challenge for Klieman and his staff. “It creates a lot of challenges. In the previous two games, we prepped for those guys, and had a six-game-to-eight-game breakdown, you’d seen all their games through crossover, it’s a fresh start, a fresh slate,” said Klieman.
The last time the Bison faced a team from Richmond’s conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, was in January 2014 when they beat Towson 35-7, for NDSU’s third straight national championship. To prepare, Bison coaches have watched every single snap the Spiders played this year. “We have twelve games to get through. Some opponents are a better fit for us than other opponents. But you don’t leave a stone unturned, you have to watch every play of every game to see if there’s anything that will help you or potentially hurt you,” explained Klieman.
The x-factor, though, may be the game’s location, the Fargodome. NDSU has played fifteen playoff games at the dome going back to 2010, winning every one of them. Earlier this week, one national college football website colorfully described the environment visiting teams face when entering the dome. “Ah yes, the intangibles. Nobody in the FCS has an intangible like this. If you’d like to simulate what it’s like to try to play in the Fargodome, go get a metal washbucket, hang it over your head and get 5 of your best friends to grab rubber mallets. Then, have said friends proceed to use said mallets on washbucket for four hours … while preparing your taxes with a deadline of midnight tonight.”
The most telling and insightful tidbit from the article came from SDSU’s head coach, John Stiegelmeier. “It’s not what (Richmond) is going to see when they get there, it’s what they’re going to hear,” Stiegelmeier told HERO Sports. “Literally 18 thousand people come to the game, and they come to try to impact the outcome. They don’t have any fan who walks in there who doesn’t think they’re part of the program. And they’re going to create as tense an environment as possible.” The Bison will need each and every one of those 18,000-odd voices to create the same challenging environment that plagued Montana and Northern Iowa the last two weeks.
“We’re excited about giving our fans another opportunity to cheer these guys on, it’s a great atmosphere. Our fans were a huge difference, just like they were against Montana,” said Klieman, describing the frenzied environment this postseason. “They (UNI) had a tough time getting some of their plays off, and our fans, hats off to them, there were three or four times they had illegal procedures or false starts because of our fans, so it’s great to play at home one more time.”
For their part, the Spiders have tried to simulate that environment and NDSU’s notoriously passionate fans by practicing in their basketball arena, the 7,201-seat Robins Center, where they’ve pumped in noise through arena speakers. “I think the guys will be more than ready for the environment,” said Kyle Lauletta, Richmond’s quarterback. Lauletta carved up the Redbirds, going 18-of-30 for 369 yards, including a touchdown. That’s a clip of 20.5 yards per completion, something the Bison will need to take away if they hope to get back to Frisco and play for a fifth straight national championship.
Ironically, in a week where the Spiders get their first taste of Fargo, Bison fans would do well to take the advice of Stiegelmeier. That is, to come ready to impact the outcome, to walk into the dome as part of the program – because you are – and to create as tense of an environment as possible. Everybody up – and stay up – for the kickoff, the march is on!