FARGO — North Dakota State is heading back to the NCAA Division I FCS championship game for the eighth time in the past nine seasons after a decisive win against Montana State in the national semifinals.
The Bison (15-0) are playing in their third consecutive Football Championship Subdivision title game and are the two-time defending national champions. NDSU is slated to play James Madison on Jan. 11 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The Bison enter the title game with an undefeated record for a second consecutive season. They have won 36 consecutive games, an FCS record.
The Dukes (14-1) are the last team to beat NDSU in the playoffs, a 27-17 victory in the 2016 semifinals at the Fargodome. James Madison has won 14 consecutive games and has not lost to an FCS opponent this season.
Below is a game-by-game look at NDSU's road to Frisco:
Game 1: No. 1-ranked Bison 57, Butler 10
Saturday, Aug. 31, Minneapolis
North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance was dynamic in his first collegiate start, completing 10 of 11 passes for 185 yards and four touchdowns. The redshirt freshman also rushed for 116 yard and two touchdowns on five attempts in a game played at Target Field.
“We dominated up front and I didn’t get touched in the pocket,” Lance said. “When I don’t get touched and I can sit back there in the pocket, it’s a good feeling.”
Lance was 9 of 10 in the first half for 172 yards and four touchdowns.
“If you were a bystander coming in watching him, you would have never thought he was a redshirt freshman,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz in his first game as the program’s head coach.
In the first quarter, Bison sophomore receiver Phoenix Sproles hauled in a 47-yard touchdown pass from Lance, making a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch as he crossed the goal line.
“Trey slung it out there perfectly,” said Sproles, who is from New Hope, Minn. “He threw the perfect ball.”
Bison senior safety James Hendricks, from Bemidji, Minn., called playing football at Target Field a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
“That was incredible,” Hendricks said. “The fans were incredible.”
Game 2: No. 1-ranked Bison 38, North Dakota 7
Saturday, Sept. 7, Fargodome
North Dakota State limited in-state rival North Dakota to 68 rushing yards and held the Fighting Hawks scoreless in the second half to earn the victory in front of the largest home crowd at the Fargodome since 2015.
The game was the last nonconference meeting between the programs with UND slated to join the Missouri Valley Football Conference next season. Bison senior tight end Ben Ellefson said the game didn’t have a rivalry flavor among the players.
“I didn’t feel it,” said Ellefson, from Hawley, Minn. “I don’t think our team felt it the whole week at all. It was another game to us. That’s the message coach Entz talked about going into this week. … I don’t think there was any extra hype that we felt, or any extra pressure. It was a big game for the state of North Dakota, for Bison fans and for former players, but I don’t think there was any added pressure for us.”
Bison quarterback Trey Lance had a strong performance, completing 11 of 15 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Lance also rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 16 attempts.
“The dynamic he brings to running the ball, he runs like a deer out there,” Bison offensive tackle Dillon Radunz said. “It’s fun to watch.”
Game 3: No. 1-ranked Bison 47, No. 18-ranked Delaware 22
Saturday, Sept. 14, Newark, Del.
North Dakota State true freshman running back Kobe Johnson made a splash, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown to help the Bison rush for 295 yards against the Blue Hens.
Johnson scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge early in the first quarter to help the Bison race to a 27-5 halftime lead at Delaware Stadium.
“This was a big game for me,” said Johnson, who is from Lawrenceville, Ga. “They just said be ready to go. This was big for me building my confidence as we move forward.”
The Bison shook off an early punt block for a safety and took a 33-5 lead after sophomore tight end Noah Gindorff caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trey Lance with 8 minutes, 47 seconds to play in the third quarter.
“That is the model,” Delaware head coach Danny Rocco said of the Bison. “That is the program you want to emulate. … I expected more, but I realize we played a really, really good team.”
The Bison had 268 yards at halftime, while limiting Delaware to 29 yards through the first two quarters.
“We put our defense out there an awful lot in the first half,” Rocco said. “The North Dakota State front four overwhelmed our offensive line.”
Game 4: No. 1-ranked Bison 27, No. 4-ranked California Davis 16
Saturday, Sept. 21, Fargodome
North Dakota State created two fourth-quarter turnovers to hold off a late California Davis rally, one of the turnovers came with the Aggies driving for the potential go-ahead touchdown with less than seven minutes remaining.
“We were just saying we had to finish,” Bison safety Michael Tutsie said. “That’s what (Code Green) does. We are built for moments like that.”
With the Bison holding a 20-16 lead, Tutsie intercepted UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier near the goal line on a third-and-goal play from the 7-yard line with 6 minutes, 44 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
Bison defensive end Derrek Tuszka later tipped a pass that defensive tackle Cole Karcz intercepted at the Aggies 18-yard line. Three plays later, Bison quarterback Trey Lance scored on a 10-yard touchdown run to give NDSU a 27-16 lead with 2:50 remaining.
“The defense, they won us that game,” Lance said.
“We have great respect and admiration for the Bison and what they do,” UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins said. “I thought it was fun to be here.”
Game 5: No. 1-ranked Bison 37, No. 6-ranked Illinois State 3
Saturday, Oct. 5, Normal, Ill.
North Dakota State raced to a 23-3 halftime lead and finished with 482 yards to overpower the Redbirds. The Bison finished the game with three touchdown plays of 35 yards or longer.
NDSU tight end Noah Gindorff had a 35-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, running back Ty Brooks had a 53-yard scoring run in the first quarter and wide receiver Christian Watson had a 42-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
“We have a bunch of explosive players,” Watson said. “We have a bunch of guys who will turn nothing into something.”
Brooks rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts. Bison quarterback Trey Lance completed 12 of 15 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
“They outplayed us and outcoached us in every phase of the game,” Illinois State head coach Brock Spack said. “They were just better than us all day.”
The Bison limited Illinois State to 200 yards on 51 plays.
“My message to this group is we need to continue to get better,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “We still have a lot to learn.”
Game 6: No. 1-ranked Bison 46, No. 10-ranked Northern Iowa 14
Saturday, Oct. 12, Fargodome
North Dakota State running back Adam Cofield had his first 100-yard rushing game for the Bison, rushing for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 15 attempts. His two fourth-quarter touchdown runs helped NDSU outscore Northern Iowa 21-0 in the final quarter.
“When you get an opportunity, you have to make the most of it,” Cofield said. “That’s what I want to do.”
The Bison rushed for 347 yards on 51 attempts, averaging 6.8 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns.
Game 7: No. 1-ranked Bison 22, Missouri State 0
Saturday, Oct. 19, Fargodome
North Dakota State gained more than 440 yards and had a two-touchdown lead at halftime, but Bison head coach Matt Entz wanted his offense to be sharper.
“You look at the stats and you think it’s the same old Bison, 450 yards of offense,” Entz said. “But as I said against Cal Davis, you don’t get bonus points for yards. You’ve got to finish drives.”
The three touchdowns proved to be more than enough with the Bison defense limiting Missouri State to 185 yards en route to the shutout. The Bears rushed for 21 yards on 20 attempts. Bison sophomore linebacker Jackson Hankey led the charge with nine tackles, including one for a loss.
NDSU running back Adam Cofield rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts to lead the offense. Bison quarterback Trey Lance completed 21 of 31 passes for 225 yards and also rushed for 79 yards and a score on eight carries.
“I think we were pretty dynamic still, made a lot of explosive plays,” Lance said. “We just have to finish better. It goes back to the little things.”
Game 8: No. 1-ranked Bison 23, No. 3-ranked South Dakota State 16
Saturday, Oct. 26, Brookings, S.D.
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz trusted his offensive line late in the fourth quarter and his faith was rewarded. On fourth down-and-1 from their own 29-yard line, the Bison handed the ball to junior running back Adam Cofield.
Cofield sliced through the line of scrimmage and bolted for a 71-yard touchdown for a 23-16 lead with 2 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“They were going to decide the fate of the game, not the head coach,” Entz said of his players.
Cofield finished with 86 rushing yards and the game-winning score on seven attempts. Bison running back Ty Brooks rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on nine carries as NDSU rushed for 332 yards.
“We didn’t make a lot of big plays,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “We’ll be back.”
The Bison earned the Dakota Marker trophy for a second consecutive season on a day when ESPN’s “College GameDay” aired from Brookings prior to the game.
“Awesome atmosphere, just the community and how it showed up and the whole process,” said SDSU linebacker Christian Rozeboom. “Crazy week. A lot of fun. It would have been more fun if we would have won.”
Game 9: No. 1-ranked Bison 56, Youngstown State 17
Saturday, Nov. 2, Youngstown, Ohio
North Dakota State scored the game’s first 35 points and had 42 points by halftime to cruise to victory at Stambaugh Stadium, a place the Bison needed late-game heroics to earn victory in their two previous trips in 2017 and 2015.
“Our guys were not going to come out and be flat and that was our challenge,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said.
Bison true freshman running back Kobe Johnson capped an explosive first half with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that gave NDSU a 42-7 lead with 42 seconds to play in the second quarter. Johnson later added a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
The Bison had three touchdowns plays of at least 69 yards with receiver Christian Watson’s 69-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
NDSU quarterback Trey Lance completed 7 of 9 passes for 160 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 32 yards and a score on four attempts.
“I threw better balls than the past few weeks,” Lance said. “I think we were a little frustrated, so we had a lot of energy and it was a lot of fun.”
The Bison had 276 yards at halftime off 27 plays.
“We needed to show up with some energy today and I think we did,” Entz said. “We played really well early.”
Game 10: No. 1-ranked Bison 57, Western Illinois 21
Saturday, Nov. 9, Fargodome
North Dakota State scored the game’s first 33 points, highlighted by tight end Josh Babicz’s 88-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter. The Bison finished with 690 yards, including 352 on the ground.
Bison quarterback Trey Lance completed 17 of 22 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. NDSU true freshman Jalen Bussey rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns in his first collegiate action. Bussey’s first two carries covered 110 yards and resulted in two touchdowns.
“It’s something you dream about as a kid, being able to play college football,” said Bussey, from Brandon, Fla. “It’s very rare and a blessing to be able to do that.”
Bison sophomore wide receiver Christian Watson had four catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Watson’s 51-yard TD catch gave NDSU a 33-0 lead with 11 minutes, 58 seconds to play in the third quarter.
“I think he can be pretty special,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “I’ve been in the league for almost 10 years and without trying to boost his ego any, I think he can be as good a receiver as I’ve seen in the Missouri Valley.”
Game 11: No. 1-ranked Bison 49, South Dakota 14
Saturday, Nov. 16, Fargodome
North Dakota State finished with 700 yards on 70 plays, setting an NDSU record for yards in a game during the Division I era. It was the third-most yards gained in a game in program history, helping the Bison clinch their ninth consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference championship.
"It's really cool," said Bison senior safety James Hendricks. "We've had so many good players come through in the last nine years. To keep this tradition going is our No. 1 goal for the year."
Bison quarterback Trey Lance completed 12 of 15 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Ty Brooks rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 11 attempts. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Watson had three catches for 94 yards and a score.
"They're actually the best NDSU team I've seen on the perimeter," South Dakota head coach Bob Nielson said. "Their receivers are very talented. You combine that with a really good offensive line, really good backs and they are a difficult team to defend."
Watson's 43-yard touchdown catch gave the Bison a 28-0 lead with 7 minutes, 50 seconds to play in the second quarter.
"We set out a goal to go undefeated this regular season and that's right in front of us," Hendricks said as the Bison improved to 11-0 with one game to play in the regular season.
Game 12: No. 1-ranked Bison 21, No. 25-ranked Southern Illinois 7
Saturday, Nov. 23, Carbondale, Ill.
North Dakota State rode a strong second half to cap a perfect regular season, marking the first time NDSU has gone 12-0 in a regular season. The Bison also tied an FCS record for 33 consecutive wins.
NDSU also won 33 in a row from 2012-2014.
"I haven't put a whole lot of thought into it. My No. 1 goal is 1-0 every week," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "Every team has setbacks here and there. Streaks don't win national championships. Streaks don't get kids to graduate. We've got good people in our program and we're going to continue to coach them."
The Bison scored touchdowns on sustained drives on their first two possessions in the second half to pull away from the Salukis. Bison running back Adam Cofield scored on an 8-yard touchdown run to give NDSU a 14-7 lead with 5 minutes, 15 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Bison quarterback Trey Lance added a 34-yard touchdown run for a 21-7 lead with 11:36 to play in the fourth quarter. NDSU receiver Jimmy Kepouros had six catches for 80 yards.
"We wanted to go out and finish this thing the right way," Lance said.
FCS second round: Bison 37, Nicholls State 13
Saturday, Dec. 7, Fargodome
North Dakota State forced two game-changing, second-half turnovers to advance to the NCAA Division I FCS quarterfinals for a 10th consecutive season. The Bison also set an FCS record, extending their winning streak to 34 games.
The Bison won 33 in a row from 2012-2014.
"It's a testament to the program," Bison senior tight end Ben Ellefson said. "We're not doing anything special or different than teams before us have done. ... It's pretty cool to be part of it. But it's something we aren't looking at right now."
The Bison scored the game's final 23 points after Nicholls State cut the NDSU lead to 14-13 after Nicholls kicker Gavin Lasseigne booted a 23-yard field goal with 10 minutes, 36 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Bison safeties Michael Tutsie and James Hendricks both had interceptions in the third quarter with those turnovers leading to 10 points. Hendricks' interception led to a Trey Lance 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Noah Gindorff for a 24-13 lead with 2 minutes, 58 seconds to play in the third.
"I feel like we've been in the playoffs the last six weeks," Nicholls State head coach Tim Rebowe said. "We just ran out of gas."
FCS quarterfinals: Bison 9, Illinois State 3
Saturday, Dec. 14, Fargodome
North Dakota State limited Illinois State to 194 yards on 48 plays and that stingy defense was needed in a game in which neither team found the end zone.
Bison freshman kicker Griffin Crosa booted three first-half field goals, which proved to be enough as NDSU advanced to the FCS semifinals for a ninth consecutive season.
"We knew we had to strap up and play," Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey said. "I'm proud of how hard we played. This was a very fun game. Of course being victorious makes it fun."
The Bison limited Illinois State star running back James Robinson to 94 yards on 24 attempts. Robinson had rushed for a combined 507 yards on 78 attempts in the two previous playoff games the Redbirds played to make the quarterfinals.
"I think everybody in that locker room knows how much work it takes to get to this point," Bison senior safety James Hendricks said of another trip to the semifinals. "We've come a long way. To make it back, it's pretty incredible."
The Redbirds defense clamped down in the second half, limiting NDSU to 57 yards on 28 plays after the Bison gained 206 yards in the first half.
"We almost felt to the point that we let them down a little bit," Bison quarterback Trey Lance said of the NDSU defense. "I didn't execute. I can do better. I have to give (Illinois State) credit. They are a really good team."
FCS semifinals: Bison 42, Montana State 14
Saturday, Dec. 21, Fargodome
North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson scored long touchdowns on back-to-back touches in the second quarter, covering 145 yards in 20 seconds.
Watson started with a 75-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Trey Lance that gave the Bison a 14-7 lead with 12 minutes, 34 seconds to play in the second quarter. He added a 70-yard touchdown run on NDSU's next play from scrimmage for a 22-7 lead with 10:51 to play in the second.
"It was a crazy experience today, me being able to go out there and execute like that," Watson said.
"Awesome team, man," Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said of the Bison. "We did not have a lot of answers for their explosive players."
The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Watson finished with two catches for 88 yards and a score. He also rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown on three attempts.
"One of the fastest guys we've gone against this year," said Montana State safety Brayden Konkol.
The Bison advanced to the Division I FCS championship game for the eighth time in the past eight seasons.
"Everything we've dreamed of, expected of ourselves since spring ball last year," Lance said. "We wanted to prove people wrong this year and I think we're doing that right now."