Photo By Hillary Ehlen
10-2. 9-3. Even those in the media more optimistic than most (read: Uglem, Ross), had this group pegged at 11-1. It’s difficult after all, to go undefeated. Think of all the great NDSU teams. Think of all the great NDSU players. So few of them actually achieved an undefeated season.
I was in school for NDSU’s initial Division I run. It was such a wild time because we all knew ultimately there would be no payoff, at least not a payoff in the sense of a championship. Even with that understanding, man, there were some great players and some great wins.
People remember Tyler Roehl, Steve Walker (of early Bison Illustrated fame), Joe Mays and Ramon Humber. People remember the FBS wins over Central Michigan (what an epic destruction that was), Ball State and Minnesota.
Beyond that, though, Kole Heckendorf, Nate Safe, Kyle Steffes, Nick Schommer, Matt Gratzek and John Richardson were awesome players. The comeback win over Sam Houston State was tremendous. So were the victories over Cal Poly, UC Davis and Georgia Southern.
Those Bison laid the foundation for Division I NDSU Football. Their peak? Two 10-1 seasons. The second season ended in Brookings with a potential bowl game invite on the line at 10-0. Going undefeated is really hard.
Carson Wentz is arguably the most talented player in FCS history not named Jerry Rice. Wentz was the highest draft pick in the history of the subdivision. He had really talented teammates and quarterbacked NDSU to victory in two FCS championship games. NDSU’s record during those two seasons? 15-1 in 2014 and 13-2 in 2015. Going undefeated is really hard.
Since 1982, only Eastern Kentucky (1982), Georgia Southern (1989), Marshall (1996), and North Dakota State (2013, 2018) have competed in the playoffs and gone undefeated. There has never been an undefeated champion in FCS that has defended their title with an undefeated season. No one in the FBS has done it since Nebraska and Tom Osborne did it in 1994 and 1995.
Let’s be clear: when this edition of Bison Illustrated goes to print, the Bison will not have a National Championship yet. They may not win it all, though they seem to be prohibitive favorites to do so.
The “Baby Bison” shouldn’t be doing this. Trey Lance had never started a game. Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson had career receptions. Combined. The offense lost two Los Angeles Chargers and a Green Bay Packer. Robbie Grimsley graduated with his name all over NDSU’s record books, as did Greg Menard. Jabril Cox was starting next to two complete unknowns at linebacker. We haven’t even talked about the Ja(ylaa)en’s yet. This should have been one of those one or two-loss teams like in 2012, 2014, or 2016. This group wasn’t ready.
Turns out, we were all wrong. They were perhaps more ready than any iteration of the Bison before them. Let’s take a quick look at the raw numbers.
I think the most confusing thing about this season and the numbers above is that those were “groups”. They were groups that grew together. Brock Jensen, Trevor Gebhart, Marcus Williams and Cole Jirik had thousands of snaps together against tough opponents before they could become the 2013 squad. Easton Stick, Darrius Shepherd, Robbie Grimsley and Greg Menard had thousands of snaps together against tough opponents before they could become the 2018 squad.
The Baby Bison? They’re already those dudes. They’re already the bullies on the playground without having to go through the trials and tribulations of “growing up in the Valley”. They’re just that good, right now.
Trey Lance is having a better statistical quarterback season than Steve Walker, Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz or Easton Stick ever did. That is, of course, happening in his first full season. Christian Watson is having a better season in his first real action than any of Darrius Shepherd’s seasons except for his senior year. Michael Tutsie might already be the best player on the defense.
These guys are better, sooner than we ever could have imagined. Because they’re that good, we have a real chance at witnessing FCS History. Four more wins and North Dakota State becomes the first program ever to defend an undefeated FCS championship with an undefeated FCS championship. Who would’ve ever guessed?