The loss to Northern Iowa was as convincing as any Bison defeat since North Dakota State began its run of seven Division I FCS national championships in eight years. The UNI-Dome crowd made a difference and the Bison were never really a factor in the 23-3 loss in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
It ended a streak of 33 straight wins, an FCS record that started in 2012 and ended to the Panthers in early November of 2014. In his post-game press conference in a classroom adjacent to the UNI-Dome, former NDSU head coach Chris Klieman was his usual calm demeanor.
He was asked about being part of the consecutive victories record.
“It’s something I don’t think will ever be done again,” Klieman said. “To win as many games as we have in a row, hard-pressed to think any FCS school could do that again.”
Well, it could be done again.
By the same program.
On Saturday, the Bison will go for their 33rd straight win, again, when they travel to Southern Illinois for the final regular season game. Klieman was right in one regard; the fact NDSU is challenging for another 33 straight could not have been foreseen.
The Bison lost 26 seniors last year including several marquee players. In their place this year, for the most part, were young, unproven players. The quarterback, Trey Lance, is a redshirt freshman.
The starting receivers were unproven sophomores Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson. The starting middle linebacker was untested walkon sophomore Jackson Hankey. The top two running backs from last year graduated and the top returning talent in the backfield, Seth Wilson, tore his ACL in spring football and is sidelined for this year.
Three of the five offensive linemen graduated. The team’s best cornerback, Jalen Allison, also finished his eligibility.
And this team is still challenging the 33 in a row?
“I think we’ve recruited well through the years,” said NDSU associate head coach Randy Hedberg. “We’ve always felt we had good talent. They just matured.”
Hedberg remembers the UNI streak-stopper game as one where the Bison were never really in the game. Quarterback Carson Wentz, now an NFL quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles, was pressured all afternoon and finished 15 of 25 with no touchdowns and one interception that the Panthers turned into a touchdown.
He remembers Klieman in the hallway outside the locker room and the no-panic demeanor.
“He was saying it probably won’t be done again but I think he really made a great statement after the game to our players … and that was hey, let’s move on. It’s over, we can start another streak and go after it.”
The current streak started on Nov. 11, 2017, one week after the Bison were soundly beaten 33-21 at South Dakota State. The Bison closed the regular season with two wins and finished the year in Frisco, Texas, with a 17-13 win over James Madison.
NDSU went 15-0 in 2018 to run the streak to 23 games coming into this season.
“We haven’t talked about it, probably won’t,” head coach Matt Entz said earlier this week. “I did have a meeting with our seniors today and I really didn’t say anything. But they did ask if you’re going to mention being 12-0 and I said only if you guys want me to. So they said, yep, that’s a big goal of ours.”
A win against the streaking Salukis, winners of five in a row, would give NDSU its third unbeaten regular season in its Division I history. It’s that kind of talk, Hedberg said, that is never talked about within the team framework.
So do the players.
“It’s not something we talk about here,” said senior fullback Garrett Malstrom, before getting into a slogan that was a point of emphasis of Klieman. “We just focus on winning the day. You stack the days on top of each other and you’ll have the results. We’re a process-driven team. We’re not a results-driven team so that’s why we are where we are.”
Last January on the stage behind the north end zone at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, after the Bison defeated Eastern Washington for the FCS title, Hedberg was asked by a reporter if he knew what NDSU’s record was in the last eight years.
“I had no clue what our record was because it was never talked about,” Hedberg said earlier this week. “And I’m being very truthful about that. I didn’t know and I don’t think our players knew that either. You just go week to week, that’s how we do it as coaches and that’s how it is. I’m not blowing smoke, that’s the way it is.”
Besides, there’s not much time to dwell on streaks with NDSU’s schedule. Of the 32 straight wins, 17 came against teams ranked in the top 25 at the time with 13 of those ranked in the top 10.
NDSU outscored those 13 by an average of 35-13. This year, that includes 27-16 over UC Davis, 37-3 over Illinois State, 46-14 over Northern Iowa and 23-16 over South Dakota State.
Outside noise? What outside noise? So far, the Bison have blocked that like the offensive line has blocked for Lance.
“We still try to have some fun and it’s OK to smile in the football office and the locker room,” Entz said. “What I get most impressed with is there are certain games you get up for but to be able to maintain the focus, the energy for eight weeks now coming up I think is remarkable, especially when we live in a world where there are so many distractions and outside noise that it’s tough sometimes for an 18-year-old to stay focused on one goal.”