MIAMI -- Super Bowl Sunday will feature one of the best players in FCS history in the biggest spotlight.
San Francisco 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will become the eighth former FCS quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. Garoppolo starred at Eastern Illinois from 2010-13, leading the Panthers to back to back playoff appearances in his final two seasons. Garoppolo helped EIU to the number two overall seed in 2013, throwing 53 touchdown passes on his way to winning the Walter Payton Award that season. Garoppolo's Panthers lost in the quarterfinals to Towson.
Garopollo is far from the only FCS player that will be on the field Sunday in Miami, in fact there are a couple that have a direct connection to North Dakota State.
49er tight end Ross Dwelley has played in all eighteen games this season, racking up 15 receptions for 91 yards and two touchdowns. The Dwelley name should be a familiar one to Bison fans, Dwelley played his college ball at San Diego and twice played in Fargo in the FCS Playoffs in 2016 and 2017. Dwelley accounted for the Toreros lone touchdown in two matchups against the Bison, catching a one yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of the 2016 second round 45-7 loss. Dwelley finished with five receptions for 48 yards in that game. He added three more catches for 27 yards in the 2017 playoff game.
Kansas City rookie defensive tackle Khalen Saunders is tasked with trying to get to Garoppolo Sunday. He had no issues doing that in college. The former Western Illinois standout was drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft by the Chiefs after he had a great senior season with the Leathernecks, capped off by a great Senior Bowl. Saunders had one of the best games by an opponent against NDSU in a long time, registering 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the 2018 loss to the Bison.
The 2016 Bison victory over Iowa was memorable for how the game turned out, but the players in it were some of the best the Bison have ever played. The Hawkeyes were led at quarterback by CJ Beathard and George Kittle at tight end. Beathard is the number three quarterback for San Francisco, he has started 13 games over the previous two seasons before Garoppolo arrived and after Garoppolo tore his ACL last season. He had a day he likely wants to forget against NDSU, completing 11 of 22 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns. Beathard also had a costly pick six in that game.
There were signs in that game that Kittle could be a special player. He led Iowa in catches (5) and receiving yards (110) in the 23-21 Bison win. Kittle had two monster receptions, including a 51 yarder that set up a Hawkeye touchdown. He was a matchup nightmare in that game and that's continued in the NFL. Arguably the most talented player on the field this coming Sunday, Kittle racked up 1,053 receiving yards on 85 receptions this season. The Garoppolo-Kittle connection is one to watch going forward.
Eastern Washington's lone trip to Fargo in 2016 made for an instant classic. There were star players all over the field. Nearly all of the fans attention was focused on the Eagles standout receiver, Cooper Kupp, who was on his to becoming one of the greatest to play in the position in the division's history. But another EWU receiver, Kendrick Bourne , stole the show that day. Bourne had eight receptions for 133 yards against the Bison defense, continually getting behind the NDSU secondary. He entered the NFL as a free agent and the 49ers signed him in 2017. He has become a threat for whoever has been the quarterback, racking up four touchdowns in 2018 and added another five this season on 30 receptions. Bourne also scored in this postseason, getting the first touchdown in the 49ers rout of the Minnesota Vikings.
While NDSU doesn't have an alum in the Super Bowl this year, there are some connections that fans will enjoy watching Sunday.