North Dakota State fans have had plenty of reasons to celebrate this year as the Bison seek a historic fifth straight Football Championship Subdivision national championship. From trouncing in-state rival, University of North Dakota, to keeping the Dakota Marker with a dominating performance against South Dakota State and, of course, a playoff run with wins over Montana, Northern Iowa and Richmond, it’s been a memorable 2015 for Bison Nation.
The Bison will look to make more memories to ring in 2016 when they face Jacksonville State in Frisco on January 9 at Toyota Stadium. Before we look ahead to that matchup, though, to get you in the mood for Texas, here’s a look at the Top 10 moments from the last four FCS national championship games.
No. 10 – Crockett’s Jump Pass
While the final score may have been a lopsided 39-13 in North Dakota State’s second straight national championship win over Sam Houston State, there was still plenty of game left after Bearkats kicker Miguel Antonio nailed a 32-yard field goal to cut NDSU’s lead to 25-13 with 13:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bison responded with a signature, six-play drive covering 65 yards capped by a one-yard touchdown plunge by quarterback Brock Jensen. But it was a pass from an unlikely source that leads off our Top 10 championship moments.
NDSU faced a crucial third-and-one from Sam Houston’s 31-yard line. Not surprisingly, the Bison gave the ball to future NFL running back John Crockett. What surprised everyone in the stadium was that, after taking the handoff, Crockett pulled up short of the line of scrimmage, leaped in the air and floated a picturesque jump pass to tight end Kevin Vaadeland. Vaadeland went 26 yards before being tackled at Sam Houston’s five-yard line to set up Jensen’s third touchdown of the game.
No. 9 – Smith’s Interception Caps Huge Sequence for Bison
For the first time, North Dakota State faced someone other than Sam Houston State for the FCS championship. Towson would attempt to do something no other team had done to the Bison that year, including defending Big XII champion Kansas State, beat the back-to-back champs. Early on, it looked like NDSU was in for all it could handle. That is until the Bison launched a sequence of plays late in the second quarter that the Tigers never recovered from.
After Colten Heagle blocked a Towson field goal that led to a quick NDSU touchdown and 14-7 lead, the Bison defense jumped aboard the big-play wagon. On their ensuing possession, Towson managed to drive to NDSU’s 45. With a first-and-10, and less than three minutes left in the half, the Tigers looked for their own big play. Instead, quarterback Peter Athens was picked off by C.J. Smith at NDSU’s 25-yard line. Smith, then a sophomore, weaved his way through would-be tacklers for 32 yards before being corralled at the Towson 43-yard line.
The mistake proved costly. Jensen completed two passes, including a third-down conversion to Vaadeland to put the Bison in scoring position, before delivering a 12-yard laser strike to Zach Vraa, giving NDSU a commanding 21-7 lead with a minute left in the first half. A back-and-forth contest suddenly turned into a blowout for the Bison. “It totally swung the momentum in our favor,” said senior nose guard Ryan Drevlow, describing the sequence of plays. “I mean, there was a 10-point swing right there after we blocked the field goal, and then to get out there right away and get that interception and then get that 14-point lead was huge. It got the ball rolling our way and it sprung us.”
No. 8 – The Emanuel-Slam
Several big defensive plays at critical junctures, including a clutch fourth-down stop towards the latter part of the third quarter, was the difference in North Dakota State’s title defense against Sam Houston State in 2012. With under five minutes left in the third quarter, although the Bison led 17-10, the Bearkats were driving towards what would have been the game-tying touchdown. The NDSU defense tightened up, ultimately forcing SHSU into a fourth-and-one from NDSU’s 35. Brian Bell, the Bearkats quarterback, rolled to his left and had future Buck Buchanan Award winner Kyle Emanuel staring down his face.
Forced to hurry his pass attempt, Emanuel picked up Bell and drove him hard into the field at Toyota Stadium. Bell’s pass fell harmlessly incomplete and NDSU had the ball back. ESPN’s cameras showed Bell crumpled up, laying flat on his back, with a look of anguish in his face after the Emanuel-slam. Two plays later, Jensen found Vraa for a 31-yard completion to Sam Houston’s 11. The drive culminated with a Sam Ojuri touchdown run that gave the Bison a two-touchdown lead that proved insurmountable for the Bearkats.
No. 7 – Heagle Blocks Towson Field Goal
The first of several special teams’ plays makes its way onto the list at No. 7. With the sun shining on a beautiful Texas day, the Bison were attempting a perfect season and three-peat against Towson. The teams were tied 7-7 with just over five minutes remaining in the first half when the Tigers lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt that would have given them a 10-7 lead. Enter Colten Heagle. Timing the snap perfectly, Heagle sliced through a gap on the left side of the Towson line and smothered the kick.
The ball deflected nearly 10 yards away from the holder where it was scooped up by Kyle Emanuel, who was off to the races, returning the block all the way to Towson’s five-yard line. The next play, Ryan Smith, going in motion from left to right from the slot position, took a handoff from Jensen and finished what the Bison special teams started. Smith’s touchdown gave NDSU a 14-7 lead, with under five minutes left in the second quarter. It was the closest the Tigers got to scoring for the rest of the day as the Bison notched the trifecta with a 35-7 win.
“I thought it was huge,” said linebacker Carlton Littlejohn about the blocked field goal that swung the game’s momentum. “We knew in the midst of this game someone would have to make a play, and for them to make those plays was just great for us, great for the whole team. It got the offense going and gave the defense more confidence.” The ensuing Towson possession, C.J. Smith intercepted Peter Athens, which led to another Bison score and a 21-7 halftime lead.
No. 6 – A Bizarre Two-Point Conversion
It was a moment where Sam Houston State knew it just wasn’t their day. Several plays after the Emanuel-slam, NDSU scored on Ojuri’s two-yard touchdown run, putting the Bison up 23-10. On the extra-point attempt, though, the snap was botched. Adam Keller, NDSU’s kicker, picked up the ball and ran for his life in what looked like a busted play from the start. With his back mostly facing the end zone, Keller tossed a desperation heave, grenade-style, towards the back of the end zone.
Going up like a basketball player for a rebound, Bison defensive end Mike Hardie, who also played special teams, came down with the football and the two-point conversion. “Sometimes there’s plays that happen in the game when you think, ‘You know what, this is probably going to be our day,’” said then-Bison head coach Craig Bohl. “A play that we had never planned or designed turned out to work extremely well.”
No. 5 – Thorton Preserves the Dakota Dynasty
In one of the best FCS championship games ever played, the Bison faced Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Illinois State. The teams did not play during the regular season, and tied for the MVFC title with identical 7-1 conference marks. The game was billed as a contest to determine the “one true champion” of the MVFC. It lived up to the hype. The fourth quarter saw several late lead changes before a Carson Wentz touchdown run gave the Bison a 29-27 lead with 37 seconds left standing between NDSU and their fourth straight national championship.
The 12th national championship in school history was very much undecided as Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson had, only moments earlier, rushed untouched through the Bison defense for a 58-yard touchdown and 27-23 lead. Starting at his own 27-yard line, Roberson led the Redbirds to their 44 with 13 seconds left on the clock. The NDSU defense wasn’t about to let Roberson beat them twice. Dropping back to pass from the left hash mark, Roberson looked towards midfield for his tight end, Joe Farmer. Roberson threw a dart. Somehow, Esley Thorton was able to pry the ball away from Farmer for an interception that sealed the four-peat. Thorton began his career at NDSU as a quarterback before being moved to linebacker prior to his junior season.
“With our guys, you never saw any doubt in their mind,” said first-year Bison head coach Chris Klieman. Klieman served as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator on the previous three national championship teams. “You never saw panic in their eyes. We’ve obviously been in this situation before, even in the playoffs, and our guys just know that, hey, it’s our time. When you have the success that we’ve had over the past four years now, guys just know how to win, and when you know how to win, you just always feel you have that chance if you can get that last possession.”
No. 4 – Urzendowski sets up game-winner with three big catches
Only seconds before Esley Thorton’s interception, it looked like NDSU’s quest for a fourth straight national championships was in serious jeopardy. The Bison had no room for error after Roberson’s 58-yard run put Illinois State ahead 27-23 with 1:38 left in an epic title matchup. Outside of Travis Beck, no freshman has shined brighter on the championship stage than wide receiver R.J. Urzendowski. The Bison started the game-winning drive backed up at their own 17-yard line, needing 83 yards and a touchdown.
No problem. On the first play, Urzendowski found separation from his defender streaking across the middle of the field and quarterback Carson Wentz tattooed him in stride with a bullet good for 32 yards to the NDSU 49. Suddenly, the Bison were back in business. The very next play, Wentz again went to Urzendowski for another first down, this time a 13-yard pickup to Illinois State’s 38-yard line. After two incomplete passes, NDSU had their backs against the wall, facing a must have third-and-10.
The Redbirds dialed up a safety blitz, leaving Urzendowski with man coverage. John Crockett picked up a key block and Wentz had just enough time to find Urzendowski down the left sideline on a vertical route for a huge 33-yard gain to the Illinois State five-yard line. “We’ve got a lot of weapons, but obviously when they were blitzing us, we had RJ in slot and we thought we had a really good matchup,” Chris Klieman said. Wentz, the NFL quarterback prospect, trusted the freshman to make a play. “Carson threw it up there, and RJ made some plays.”
While the Bison needed a final five yards to finish their drive, Urzendowski’s three catches for 78 yards put NDSU in position for what would come next.
No. 3 – The Fake Punt
Arguably, no other play changed the momentum of a national championship like the fake punt early in the third quarter of NDSU’s first FCS title game against Sam Houston State. The Bison trailed 6-3 at halftime in a defensive battle. Heading into the opening drive of the second half, the Bison had not picked up a first down in their previous four possessions. Taking the ball to start the half, it was more of the same, as NDSU struggled to move the ball, facing another three-and-out. Facing fourth down at their own 34-yard line, the Bison called for the fake and executed to perfection.
Former running back turned punter Matt Voigtlander took the snap and took off sprinting through a wide-open lane on the left side of the line for 27 yards to the Sam Houston 39. “It was a momentum changer,” said Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz, who was recently named to the same job at Tulane. “We’re not a team that’s used to playing from behind.” Fritz was referencing the next play after the fake punt where D.J. McNorton took a Brock Jensen screen pass 39 yards to pay dirt for NDSU’s first touchdown in an FCS title game, giving the Bison a 10-6 lead.
No. 2 – Beck’s Interception
Before Esley Thorton’s interception, there was another memorable interception that propelled NDSU to a national championship. Travis Beck emerged onto the scene in 2011 and would ultimately become one of the greatest ever to play linebacker for the Bison. A native son of North Dakota, Beck cemented his place in Bison football history with nine minutes and change remaining in NDSU’s first FCS championship game against Sam Houston State. The Bison clung to a razor-thin 10-6 lead as the Bearkats marched into NDSU territory. On a third-and-13 from NDSU’s 48, Bell dropped back to pass. Beck slipped back into coverage and picked off Bell’s pass at NDSU’s 36 and sprinted down the right sideline.
Beck launched himself toward the end zone pylon, but was ruled out of bounds one yard short of the end zone. The next play, Jensen’s quarterback sneak gave NDSU the decisive touchdown as the Bison would go on to win their first FCS championship 17-6. “It hit me right in the chest,” said Beck. “I said, ‘I better catch this one.’ I did what I could, but I couldn’t get in. Luckily, the offense finished it off.” Beck was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.
No. 1 – Touchdown Wentz!
Among the Bison faithful, there was little doubt who would get the ball with NDSU needing five yards for the game-winning score against Illinois State in Frisco last season. Starting at their own 17-yard line, trailing 27-23 and needing 83 yards, like they had done so many times before, the Bison started a drive that would go down as one of the best in school history. The Wentz to Urzendowski combination connected for 78 of those 83 yards through the air. The ground game and Wentz would bring the Bison home.
“When we lined up in the formation, upstairs, Tim (Polasek, the team’s offensive coordinator) says, ‘Guys, it’s a touchdown. We got the look we want. It’s a touchdown,’” explained Klieman of Wentz’s game-winner. Wentz found daylight, slashing through the left side of the NDSU line, evading Redbird defenders, before tumbling into the end zone, sending Toyota Stadium into pandemonium. “I think we just saw on that drive what the heart of a champion looks like,” said ESPN announcer Kelly Stouffer.