Fargo

Derrek Tuska unveiled a new celebration for North Dakota State football players after he sacked Montana State quarterback Tucker Rovig in the fourth quarter Saturday, Dec. 21. He quickly rubbed his right fingertips on his left hand, like he was peeling dollar bills off a stack.

Dollar bills that pay for the Bison player's cost of attendance, a benefit NDSU grants many of its athletes in addition to scholarships. Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate alluded to COA earlier in the week, saying he believes NDSU isn't on a level playing field with most other Division I Football Championship Subdivision schools because of it.

"The celebration, the guys were saying we have to do that if somebody makes a big play because we get cost of attendance here," Tuska, a senior defensive end bluntly said after the game. "That's what that was."

It wasn't the deciding factor in the game, but it didn't help. If the Bison needed any more motivation than making a return trip to Frisco, Texas, or putting to rest some doubts about its offense or keeping alive a remarkable legacy, Choate provided it.

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"We took some things personal during the course of the week and that's OK," Bison head coach Matt Entz said, a thinly veiled reference to Choate's commentary.

North Dakota State fans celebrate during the NCAA FCS semifinal against Montatna State at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State fans celebrate during the NCAA FCS semifinal against Montatna State at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum

The final score was 42-14 for the Bison, in a game that was over by halftime. With NDSU ahead 29-7, the only mystery of the second half was when Alabama's "If You're Gonna Play in Texas" was going to blare over the Fargodome's sound system.

Answer: With 13:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was same-old, same-old with Texas flags waving and jazzed up fans dancing and celebrating.

Except it wasn't, which is one of the most impressive things about the Bison making their eighth trip to the national title game in nine years.

North Dakota State's Christian Watson lets out a yell as the clock winds down in 42-14 win over Montana State during the NCAA FCS semifinal at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Christian Watson lets out a yell as the clock winds down in 42-14 win over Montana State during the NCAA FCS semifinal at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum

In addition to all the other turnover and change with NDSU's program in the last decade, it must be noted the Bison are on their fourth different starting quarterback since the run began. Trey Lance, the redshirt freshman, is following in the footsteps of Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz and Easton Stick in leading NDSU to Frisco.

While other programs struggle to find one franchise QB in a decade, the Bison have hit a grand slam.

After a couple of games when he wasn't at his best, Lance reminded the Bobcats and a national television audience why he won the Jerry Rice Award as the FCS's top freshman and why he's a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the division's best offensive player.

The numbers are the numbers. Lance finished 15 of 21 for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He's still not thrown an interception this season, now 15 games long, and his TD total is up to 28. Lance also rushed for 64 yards and two touchdowns against Montana State.

Lance again flashed the magic he displayed in midseason, hitting receiver Christian Watson on a 75-yard bomb for a touchdown in the second quarter and scrambling to avoid a heavy rush before heaving 73-yard scoring strike to Dimitri Williams in the third quarter. Lance might be the only quarterback in FCS who could make the second play.

"To me, that's a different level play. To be able to continue to feel pressure and keep your eyes downfield. That's not a freshman play. That's an advanced play right there," Entz said. "That's somebody who has played 50, 60, 70 games in their career, not a guy who is on game 15."

Lance remains his same humble, kind of boring self in postgame press conferences, paying homage to his offensive linemen and others. His teammates, however, don't hold back the praise.

North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox tracks down Montana State wide receiver Travis Jonsen during the NCAA FCS semifinal at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox tracks down Montana State wide receiver Travis Jonsen during the NCAA FCS semifinal at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 21. David Samson / The Forum

"Early on we knew he was special. The reads he makes for a young guy, it looks like he's been in the program for four years," star Bison linebacker Jabril Cox said. "It's going to be hard to stop him. You can only contain him. You can try your best. Good luck. I'm glad we don't have to play against him."

Lance looked like his old self, thanks in part to the Bison coaching staff unlocking the handcuffs. He carried 11 times, mostly on planned run calls, and proved a beast to tackle. Montana State's defense, which looked so good against Austin Peay of the Ohio Valley Conference in the quarterfinals, didn't have a chance.

"If you can't stop that, you're going to have a long day," Bobcats safety Brayden Konkol said.

As in 541 total yards long, which is the amount Montana State allowed. It came one week after NDSU's offense did almost nothing in the second half of a 9-3 victory over Illinois State, setting off the alarm bells among Bison fans and media. Entz said the offensive line and Lance showed a sense of urgency and intensity during the week.

And now the Bison are headed back to Frisco in a year when some believed there might be a drop-off, if only slight, because of all the new faces in important positions. Including quarterback.

"It's everything. It's everything we dreamed of and expected of ourselves since spring ball last year," Lance said. "I think the biggest thing is that we wanted to prove people wrong this year and we're doing that right now."

The Bison probably didn't need the assist Choate's mouth provided early in the week, but they took it and ran with it. All the way to Texas.