McFeely: Koonce, Bison prove they are North Dakota tough
Jackson Koonce is a southern California kid, but don't let that fool you. The North Dakota State punter showed up at practice on a frigid day last week wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.
"He thinks he's tough, which I like," Bison coach Chris Klieman snarked after his team wrapped up the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with a 20-7 victory over Illinois State on Saturday.
Koonce doesn't just think he's North Dakota tough. He is. He earned it against the Redbirds. While his hometown of Oceanside, Calif., near San Diego was 72 degrees and sunny, Koonce was punting well and pinning the Redbirds deep time and again in gale-force winds, biting wind-chill, pouring rain and driving heavy snow. These were conditions not fit for sportswriters, nor beast, particularly sportswriters.
Yet there were Koonce and the Bison, slugging out a victory in what Klieman called "as tough of conditions as I've coached in and these players have played in."
The field was greasy, the footballs were slick, throwing and kicking into the 25 mile-per-hour wind was an exercise in futility. It was old-school outdoor football. Frozen tundra stuff.
By the middle of the third quarter, heavy snow made for whiteout conditions and the most valuable players were the guys driving the John Deere tractors to keep the hash marks cleared. In the first half it was driving rain. And throughout was that bone-chilling wind.
And the verdict from Koonce on playing in such slop?
"It was new. Not a big fan of it. Luckily we go back to the dome, so I'm happy about that," Koonce said.
Indeed, the Bison should have earned a No. 2 seed from the Football Championship Subdivision playoff committee by winning an outright title in the toughest FCS league, but what will happen is anybody's guess. The top two seeds play home games throughout the playoffs as long as they win. It's more likely the Bison will keep their current fourth seed or possibly move up to No. 3. That's how the committee rolls.
The Fargodome is a country club compared to what happened in Normal. With neither offense able to move the ball, the game became a test of which team would make a major mistake first.
It turned out to be Illinois State. Early in the third quarter with the game scoreless, the Redbirds defense stopped the Bison on a three-and-out near midfield. NDSU punted, but Illinois State's Zackary Mathews ran into Koonce's leg and was called for roughing the punter. The penalty gave NDSU a first down at the Redbird 33 and entirely changed the game's momentum.
Bison quarterback Easton Stick scored on a 10-yard run a few plays later and NDSU had the game's first lead.
"I kind of saw the guy come across and he kind of swiped my foot, so I kind of swallowed my pride and rolled around for a little bit to see if I could get the penalty. I was happy I did," Koonce said.
An interception by linebacker Jabril Cox was the next big play and the Bison turned that into points, too. From there, it was a matter of hanging on.
Klieman said his message at halftime was to ignore the weather—easier said than done on this day—and enjoy the moment and wait for opportunities.
"Embrace this. Enjoy it," Klieman said he told the Bison. "We have 30 minutes to win a conference championship outright. ... Where else would you want to be? We have a chance to play for a title. We're used to the elements. The guys did not really think it was cold."
Considering running back Bruce Anderson, a south Florida native, was still wearing a hood over his head at the press conference 20 minutes after the game ended, Klieman might have been stretching the truth just a smidgen.
"I'm still shivering, man. It's a dream for a Florida kid to play in the snow and I'm glad I got to experience it but I don't want to experience it anymore," Anderson said. "I'm good with one game. I'm content with that."
There's a chance Anderson will get his wish and the next outdoor game he plays will be in the warmer climes of Frisco, Texas. If not, these Bison are North Dakota tough. If they can handle Saturday's conditions, they can handle anything. Koonce, Anderson and the rest of them proved that.