FRISCO, Texas — North Dakota State senior safety James Hendricks saved the day and the Bison accomplished something that hadn't been done in college football for more than 125 years.
Hendricks intercepted a pass near the goal line in the final seconds to seal a 28-20 victory against James Madison for the NCAA Division I FCS championship Saturday before 17,866 fans at Toyota Stadium.
“It’s surreal that it happened to be and I’m just so excited that we capped off the season the right way," said Hendricks, who is from Bemidji, Minn.
The Bison capped a perfect season and became the first college football team to go 16-0 since the Yale Bulldogs in 1894. NDSU has won 37 consecutive games and eight of the past nine FCS championships, including the past three.
"Hard to believe," said Bison head coach Matt Entz, who was in his first season as the team's head coach. "It probably won't sink in for a couple days yet. Maybe on the flight home. I know it will feel more real the minute I walk through these doors and go into the locker room and see those guys."
NDSU has a 128-8 record over the past nine seasons. The Bison are the sixth FCS team to go undefeated en route to a national title. They also had perfect seasons in 2013 and 2018. The eight national titles are also an FCS record. Georgia Southern has the second most FCS crowns with six.
“This program is incredible," said Bison senior defensive end Derrek Tuszka.
“Ever since we stepped on campus, you get groomed by the best people in the world, the best people in college football and you just grow to be men," Hendricks added.
The Bison played James Madison in two of the past three title games and both came down to the closing seconds. NDSU earned a 17-13 victory against the Dukes with a last-second defensive stop to win the 2017 championship. The Bison defeated Eastern Washington last season.
"I think you saw flashes of JMU football, but unfortunately there were too many big, negative plays that proved to be too much to overcome," Dukes head coach Curt Cignetti said.
Bison redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance made one of the bigger plays in the game. Early in the fourth quarter while facing a third-and-23, a scrambling Lance found room up the middle, veered left and raced into the end zone from 44 yards out. That score gave the Bison a 28-13 lead with 14 minutes, 50 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
“We were trying to just get closer to kick a field goal and he took it in for a score," Bison quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said. "That’s better than we thought.”
The Dukes cut the margin to 28-20 after touchdown pass from quarterback Ben DiNucci to wide receiver Riley Stapleton with 6:55 remaining. DiNucci's six-yard scramble on fourth-and-6 that reached the 5-yard line preceded the TD play. Stapleton finished with 10 catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
"I thought there were moments in the game we showed our true character and stepped up and gave ourselves a chance," Cignetti said.
The Bison picked up two first downs on their next possession and faced a fourth-and-2 at the JMU 36-yard line. Lance was stopped on a run up the middle a yard short, and the Dukes took over with 2:51 remaining and all three time outs.
NDSU linebacker Jabril Cox snuffed out a double-pass trick play, tackling DiNucci for an eight-yard loss. JMU got the first down, however, on a two-yard shovel pass to running back Jawon Hamilton on fourth-and-2 to the Bison 39 with 50 seconds left.
A pass to Stapleton for 22 yards reached the Bison 17 at 38 seconds. A pass interference penalty on NDSU brought it to the 3-yard line with 8 seconds remaining.
On the next play, Hendricks stepped in front of a DiNucci throw that was intended for receiver Brandon Polk. The Bison had to take one more snap to run out the clock before the team stormed the stage in the north end zone.
“That’s how it was supposed to be," Entz said of the Hendricks interception. "It was like it was scripted that way. They couldn’t have written a movie better than that.”
DiNucci completed 22 of 33 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He also rushed for nine yards and eight attempts.
"Honestly, I don't think they really won that game," DiNucci said. "Honestly, I think we lost it. Too many penalties. I'm not going to comment on the refs, not my job to do that. But trick plays, they'll probably tell you we outphysicaled them."
The Dukes started fast. They took the opening kickoff and went 86 yards in 17 plays, culminating with a five-yard touchdown pass from DiNucci to Stapleton. James Madison led 7-0 with 7:27 to play in the first quarter.
NDSU responded with a 70-yard, eight-play drive behind Lance. He carried six times on the drive, with the big play a 32-yard run on third-and-11 that reached the JMU 39-yard line. Bison running back Adam Cofield dove in from the 1 and it was 7-7 with 3:30 to play in the first.
NDSU got creative in the second quarter. A fake reverse by receiver Phoenix Sproles created an opening on the left side and Sproles took advantage. He scored from 38 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to give NDSU a 14-7 lead.
"We just gotta be more disciplined with our eyes," James Madison defensive end Ron'Dell Carter said. "We weren't."
The Dukes countered with a field goal, but NDSU one-upped James Madison in the special teams department. A touchdown pass from Lance to tight end Ben Ellefson was called back because of an ineligible receiver downfield penalty. One play later, the Bison set up for a 38-yard field goal.
But Hendricks, the holder, took the snap, sprung to his feet, got a key block from Ellefson and ran 20 yards for a touchdown on the left side of the JMU line to make it 21-10 with 3:47 to play in the second quarter. It was NDSU's first successful fake field goal since 2003 at the University of Montana.
"We had guys not do their job on the offensive left side, our right," Cignetti said. "They executed and we didn't. Big play."
That 21-10 lead held up until halftime after JMU's Ethan Ratke's 40-yard field goal hit the right upright and was no good with 1:47 left in the second quarter. NDSU's offense stalled for most of the third quarter, getting just one first down on its first two possessions. The Dukes got a 27-yard field goal from Ratke to pull within 21-13 with 8:45 to play in the third and that was the score heading to the final 15 minutes.
The Bison held off James Madison to cap off a second consecutive undefeated national championship season. That's the first time an FCS team has put together back-to-back undefeated national title seasons.
"I think it shows a lot about our program, who we are," said Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey, who had 17 tackles. "I think at the beginning of the year there were a lot of new faces and there were a lot of people that had a lot of questions about how good we were going to be."
Lance rushed for a game-high 166 yards with a touchdown on 30 attempts. He also completed 6 of 10 passes for 72 yards. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Lance finished the 16-game season with 28 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
"We knew he was going to take care of the football, whether it be running or throwing, and he was going to make smart decisions," Bison offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said. "That's all we needed to do against this defense."