MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Entz promised he'd do some things differently than Chris Klieman, his predecessor as the head coach of North Dakota State's football team.
You might ask why, given the Bison have won seven of the last eight Football Championship Subdivision national titles. If it ain't broke, don't fix it and all that.
Call him a gambler, because before almost 35,000 jazzed up Bison fans at Target Field on Saturday, Aug. 31, the new guy put his spin on the game in some ways NDSU fans haven't seen for awhile. If ever.
Also call Entz a winner, because his debut as the steward of the mighty Bison program went about as well as could be expected. Not perfect. But anytime a rookie head coach wins 57-10 in his first game and the quarterback he chose to start looks like Superman, well, that's a pretty good day.
On the same afternoon Klieman put his initial mark on the Kansas State program, propelling the Wildcats into the present and past the Bill Snyder era with an impressive victory over Nicholls State in Manhattan, Kan., Entz had longtime Bison observers saying, "What in the name of Rocky Hager is going on around here?"
Entz, eschewing years of tradition, elected to have the Bison receive the opening kickoff. He explained after the game he wanted to avoid having his team looking into the sun while fielding the second-half kick and wanted to make Butler do it instead. In the annals of a coach leaving no stone unturned, this ranks in the top five.
A few minutes after the opening boot, after redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance sprinted 33 yards for the game's first touchdown, the Bison ran a long-scripted two-point conversion that featured safety James Hendricks pitching to kicker Jake Reinholz, who trotted into the end zone looking like Easton Stick.
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If you, dear reader, can name the last time a Bison coach called for a two-point conversion when it wasn't absolutely necessary, you win a Bob Babich bobblehead doll.
It was all about getting a wrinkle on film, the cat-and-mouse game of coaching. It's not uncommon for coaches to run things just to force future opponents to spend time and energy planning for them.
"My challenge to our team and our coaches is we need to make everyone defend every single play that we're out there," Entz said. "I know as a defensive coordinator, and I've been on the other side, where you have to defend every snap. You're worried about every situation. I'm going to make somebody else be that guy.
"When you do it early, you have to prepare for it now. Whoever our opponent is next week or the week after, they are going to have to take 10, 15 minutes a week now and say, 'One, how do we stop that play? Two, what are the alternative or secondary plays that come off that look?' Like I said, we're going to make people have to defend every snap."
Entz said during fall camp he was going to be different than Klieman in this way: The new coach was going to play more true freshmen. Not just those Entz plans to play under the NCAA's four-game rule that protects their eligibility, but those who will become regulars in the rotation.
Six true freshmen played against Butler. Griffin Crosa, a kicker from Ohio, was used for most of the game out of necessity because of an injury to Reinholz. Whether the others will become regulars or Entz was just giving them a taste of action remains to be seen. Judging by Entz's postgame press conference, we'll be seeing much more of running back Kobe Johnson from Lawrenceville, Ga.
The 5-foot-9, 177-pound Johnson got six carries and turned them into 63 exciting yards. That included an impressive 27-yard run.
"I thought he was pretty special out there. He is a guy we didn't find until late in the process in recruiting and I think Bison fans probably already know what jersey number he is," Entz said. "He's a special young man, has a ton of tools, runs with a great pad level, always falling forward. He's going to continue to get better. The package we can use him in can expand now that he has some great confidence."
Johnson is No. 24, by the way.
Entz's debut wasn't all smooth. The Bison lost two fumbles, including a Butler scoop-and-score after Ty Brooks had the ball punched out. Fumbles continue to be an issue with the running back from Fargo South.
Entz also made a curious decision to have Butler re-kick after the Bulldogs were called for a penalty on a punt the Bison safely fair caught at their own 33 with a 22-0 lead. Jimmy Kepouros fumbled the re-kick and Butler recovered, but replay showed Kepouros' knee was down a fraction of a moment before the ball came out. But if you're Entz, why risk possession to gain a few yards with a big lead?
The handful of miscues were swept away by the victory, the party atmosphere at the ballpark and the play of Lance. It was only Butler, yes, but the young quarterback showed why coaches raved about him last season during a redshirt year. Lance is big, strong, fast and throws a beautiful ball. He looks like a natural in every way.
The success of the quarterback will have much to do with the success of the new coach. The two are zip-tied together for the next several years. In the end, Entz's imprint on the Bison program will rely on Lance's play as much as anything else.
Entz can receive as many opening kickoffs as he wants, run as many two-point conversions as he wants and play as many true freshmen as he wants as long as the Bison win. And we mean national championships, not just games. But the new coach had to start somewhere and after one game he's 1-0. You can't do any better than that.