The kid came to North Dakota State as a quarterback. He’s leaving as a player who will forever be remembered as the man who saved the day Saturday afternoon.
James Hendricks. He just got on Twitter recently with an appropriate handle of “Jimmy Football,” and after his interception in the final five seconds at Toyota Stadium, he may have exponentially more followers.
“James is a very, very high character and high-integrity person,” said Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey, “and fortune has a way of favoring him and he deserves it. It couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
It happened again. Another Division I FCS national title for NDSU, which makes it eight in nine years and further cementing the program as one of the all-time greatest in the history of college football. The 28-20 win over James Madison before another full, albeit cold, crowd at Toyota Stadium put the final touches on a 16-0 season and a second straight unbeaten year.
They’ve done it with players from the likes of Bemidji, Minn., where Hendricks grew up the son of a high school football coach. He spent his first two years in the program as a backup quarterback before making the switch to safety.
His final play as an NDSU player will forever be in the Bison football history books. He picked off JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci in the end zone and returned it to the 20-yard line with two seconds remaining.
“It’s his multi-sport upbringing, it’s his quarterback background,” said Bison defensive coordinator David Braun. “It’s his student-of-the-game ability and dang it he’s a gamer. He’s a gamer.”
Interesting how two former quarterbacks made game-ending interceptions in NDSU’s eight FCS titles. In the 2014 championship game, linebacker Esley Thorton picked off Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson to seal the 29-27 victory in Frisco. Thorton started his career as a quarterback battling with Carson Wentz, before Wentz won the job before both of their junior seasons.
Thorton almost immediately moved to linebacker. Hendricks gave way to Easton Stick, figuring he wasn’t going to play much behind the current Los Angeles Chargers quarterback, so he moved to the other side of the ball.
JMU was on the move and had the look of a team that was about to tie it up, assuming a successful two-point conversion. The Dukes were in the process of being clutch. One drive earlier, DiNucci converted a fourth-and-6 at the Bison 11-yard line with a six-yard run. His six-yard touchdown pass to Riley Stapleton two plays later brought the Dukes within 28-20.
They got the ball back with 2:51 remaining after Bison quarterback Trey Lance was stopped on fourth-and-2 at the JMU 36. The Dukes overcame a second-and-18 situation, getting two yards on fourth-and-2 on a shovel pass from DiNucci to running back Jawon Hamilton. That reached the 39-yard line with 50 seconds remaining.
A pass to the 6-foot-5 Stapleton two plays later reached the 17. Two NDSU penalties, an offsides call and a pass interference infraction, brought the ball to the 3-yard line. Hendricks had seen enough.
“It was on film all year,” he said of the play. “We knew that when they got in that set they were going to run a pick play. And, honestly, they got us in a good call.”
It was a play the Dukes were going to use for a two-point conversion if need be, but opted to use it at the end of regulation.
“That was one of our two two-point plays,” said JMU head coach Frank Cignetti. “We had two two-point plays we practiced quite a bit. We had time for two plays. Eight seconds. If that play wasn’t open, you could throw it away and run another play.”
Instead, Hendricks read the play like a veteran senior. Bison cornerback Marquise Bridges was in the area, but he appeared to be a couple steps off of receiver Brandon Polk.
“Roll out to the left, Brandon Polk was the first option, looked open and I didn’t see No. 6, he made a heck of a play,” DiNucci said.
No. 6, Hendricks, didn’t have Polk as his responsibility, but he left his man and jumped the route. Hendricks in essence gambled that DiNucci was going to throw to Polk and nobody else.
“And I made that play and the rest is history,” Hendricks said.
It certainly is history. That is now 37 wins in a row for the Bison, who last lost in 2017 to South Dakota State. Ironically, that game was his first career start in a season where he also played linebacker and took snaps at quarterback against Robert Morris.
“They call him Jimmy Football for a reason,” said receiver Phoenix Sproles. “He makes big plays in big games and we’re going to miss him next year.”