The last time North Dakota State played at Montana in September 2003, the conventional wisdom was that the Bison would do well for themselves if we could somehow hang with the powerhouse Grizzlies and not get blown out. Montana was a year removed from a national championship in 2001 and entered the game against NDSU as one of the favorites to contend for another championship. In the ten seasons between 1995 and 2004, the Grizzlies played in five national championship games, winning two. They were the giants of the Football Championship Subdivision, then known as I-AA.
The Bison, on the other hand, were making their first baby steps into division I waters, still members of division II. Skeptics pounced on NDSU for their decision in the summer of 2002 to move up to division I athletics. The Bison began division I play in 2004. The first five years of the division I move, NDSU was classified as a transitioning program, and, as a result, were ineligible for postseason play. The Bison became playoff eligible in 2008.
Here’s some perspective. In those seven years since becoming playoff eligible, NDSU has won four national championships – two more than Montana has in the last 33 years. Going one step further, the FCS level was formed in 1978. Only one school, Georgia Southern, has more national championships than NDSU at the FCS level. The team NDSU beat twice to reach the national championship has six titles. But they had several more decades to do it. In all fairness, though, GSU moved up to the FBS level in 2014, where, in their first year of play, they finished 9-3 and 8-0 in the Sun Belt Conference, winning the Sun Belt Conference championship.
As they say, oh what a difference a few years makes. In the 12 years that have lapsed from when the Bison last played at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, NDSU has eclipsed Montana, Georgia Southern, and everybody else by a moon shot as the undisputed heavyweights of the FCS.
Perspective on that 2003 game versus this 2015 matchup shows how expectations have changed for NDSU and a growing fan base that – thanks in large part to athletics – has methodically transformed the university into a nationally recognized brand.
The expectations and perspective then? I will always remember the sunny afternoon when the Bison upset the Grizzlies. I just got back to Fargo from a Bison Ambassadors retreat in lakes country. We arrived home at 901 College Street – yes, the same 901 College Street where Adam Jones invented the Dakota Marker later that same school year – with the Bison trailing at the half 24–2. That would soon change. A full living room watched as the Bison took one giant leap for our university in what would prove to be first pages of a historic run unlike any other in college athletics history.
The Grizzlies didn’t score the rest of the game. The Bison’s newly arrived West Coast offense and power run game chipped away at the deficit. Kyle Steffes notched NDSU’s first touchdown on a 2-yard plunge, culminating what would become the norm in the next decade – a 13 play, 82-yard drive and pay dirt.
A Cory Vartanian field goal and Allen Burrell touchdown brought the Bison to within 24–19 with six minutes and change left on the clock. After Burrell’s touchdown, the Bison defense forced a stop. The Bison then marched to the Grizzlies 20-yard line where they lined up for a field goal. There would be no kick. Rod Malone peeled around the left edge, sprinting to his right, taking a pitch from the holder. On the run, Malone lofted a pass that, at first, looked like it was overthrown. But somehow, Mike Weiser managed to use every inch of his frame to stretch out and corral the ball, sliding on his back in the corner of the Grizzlies’ end zone, ball secured, to give the Bison a 25–24 lead. Minutes later, Montana missed a field goal as time expired and NDSU had not only stayed with the Grizzlies but beat them.[/text_output]
[image type=”none” float=”none” link=”true” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover” src=”3820″ alt=”2003 North Dakota State University Bison versus University of Montana Grizzles football game 25-24 “]
[text_output]In the 901 College Street living room that day, we were awestruck. We beat Montana! Holy (insert non-printable words here), we beat Montana! It was monumental. It was the first of the “Is this the biggest win in program history?” questions that would be asked in the coming years. For all the big wins in the last decade, the FBS wins, the national championships, the College GameDay appearances, dancing in the NCAA Tournament – before all of that, there was holy $%*&!, we beat Montana! That win was, at the time, the equivalent of our moon shot.
As times change, so do our expectations. The discussion then was, can we somehow keep it close with Montana. The discussion now is if we win at Montana, where we’ll be favored, will ESPN come back to Downtown Fargo for a third consecutive year this fall? And, of course, will the Bison win our fifth straight national championship in 2015. Who could have possibly imagined that in September 2003?
The question is no longer whether we can eke out a living in Division I, we’ve emphatically answered that. The question, front and center, is when are we going to follow Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in making the move to the FBS. Beating Montana, however satisfying, is no longer the top goal we should aspire to.
We should be eyeing the next moon shot for NDSU. To borrow a few words on the topic:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
As history has showed us, if this university decides that we’re going to the moon, you can bet we’ll be planting a big yellow Bison flag on it sooner rather than later. That is a challenge we should be willing to accept, one that we should be unwilling to postpone, and one, which we fully intend to win.
Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on![/text_output]