FARGO — The green and yellow confetti streamed from an overhang last Saturday afternoon in the north end zone of Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The game’s most valuable player, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, held it up to a football field full of Bison fans who knew the drill all too well.
It completed the most impressive two days in Division I Football Championship Subdivision history for one single player. On Friday, Lance was honored with the Jerry Rice Award that goes to the subdivision’s best freshman and the Walter Payton Award that goes to the best offensive player.
On Saturday, he led the Bison to a thrilling 28-20 win over James Madison, the program’s eighth national title in the past nine years. With the game’s MVP, that’s three of the top individual honors in the FCS and the ultimate team trophy in a matter of just two days.
And the kid is just a kid; a redshirt freshman.
So when it comes to tabulating the hows and the whys of this season, the obvious pick would be Lance.
But as the kid has said all season, the reason he threw 28 touchdown passes without an interception was because he was rarely pressured in the pocket. The reason the NDSU passing game was so effective was because of a potent running game where the running backs averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
The Bison became the first 16-0 college football team since Yale in 1894 because their offensive line was the best in the FCS. They were able to run the table for three key reasons: 1. The offensive line. 2. A rapidly maturing quarterback. 3. James Hendricks.
“It was our ability to protect a freshman quarterback in the pocket and keep him clean the majority of the year,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “Trey, on numerous times, has mentioned that.”
(NOTE: Bison football Special Commemorative Section is coming in print to Sunday's Forum newspaper. Below is a sneak peek at the cover for the section filled with Forum photographer David Samson's photos)
The offensive line
It would take some detailed film review, but it’s extremely doubtful Lance was pressured on consecutive passes all season. As it was, he was sacked just 13 times for 59 yards. Moreover, there were plays where he could have eaten a ham sandwich before throwing. On the flipside, Lance's uncanny elusiveness helped him escape potential lost yardage numerous times.
When former head coach Chris Klieman left for Kansas State after last season, he took noted offensive line coach Conor Riley with him. Entz brought in AJ Blazek from Rutgers University and Blazek proceeded to operate with a Big Ten Conference offensive line.
“When you think of NDSU, you think of offensive and defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage and those guys exemplified that,” Entz said.
The offensive line benefited from an unusual factor considering the Bison played 16 games. Left tackle Dillon Radunz, left guard Nash Jensen, center Karson Schoening, right guard Zack Johnson and right tackle Cordell Volson started all 16 games.
“That is a stat you don’t count on at the beginning of the year,” Entz said. “In fall camp, we made a huge deal how deep we thought we were and we still do. As a team, we avoided the serious, season-ending injury that has plagued us for a number of years.”
Entz said credit there goes to the Bison strength and conditioning staff, the medical training staff and Blazek.
“He was a new position coach at maybe what is considered the most important position at NDSU,” Entz said.
No opposing player got more than one quarterback sack in any one game this season.
When Easton Stick left as the all-time wins leader for an FCS quarterback, the void at the position was glaring for the Bison. For the first time since 2009, NDSU did not have an experienced heir apparent.
Brock Jensen was a four-year starter from 2010-13. Carson Wentz spent three years as Jensen’s understudy before taking over as the starter in 2014.
Stick played eight games for the injured Wentz in 2014 and took over as the full-time guy from 2016-18. Although highly touted as a high school recruit from Marshall, Minn., Lance was relatively untested when he was named the starter in fall camp in a battle with junior Zeb Noland, an Iowa State transfer.
Lance set the NCAA FCS record of “lowest percentage passes had intercepted,” completing 192 of 287 passes. Eric Rasmussen of San Diego had one interception in 279 attempts in 2002 with a minimum standard of 175 attempts. He would in theory have the overall Division I record since the FBS record was set by Virginia’s Matt Blundin with his 224 attempts without an interception in 1991.
Lance blew away the FCS record for most passes attempted without an interception in one season, topping Ryan Fitzpatrick’s mark of 150 in 2002 at Harvard.
“I think he has a great understanding of where his eye progression is going to be,” Entz said. “The thing with Trey is he’ll take the checkdown. You see some young quarterbacks who want to make the tough throw into traffic and prove to everyone they can make that throw. That also lends to the efficiency in which he operated as well.”
Taking care of the ball was a trend of the Bison offense in general. NDSU's six turnovers, five fumbles and a trick-play interception against South Dakota State thrown by running back Dimitri Williams, tied the FCS record for fewest in one season along with Wagner in 2012 and Indiana State and Princeton in 2018.
Lance broke Wentz’s single-season school record of 3,753 yards of total offense set in 2014. He had 1,100 yards rushing to go along with his passing total to finish with 3,886. He easily broke Stick’s passing efficiency season record and finished in a tie for second with Stick (2017 and 2018) with 28 touchdown passes. Jensen set that record with 34 in 2013.
The Bison offense may have been efficient, but it also had some high risk to it as well. NDSU was explosive, perhaps displaying more overall weapons than any previous title team.
Every good team needs a guy like this; a senior leader who provides stability on the field and inspiration off it. When Hendricks took a fake field goal 20 yards for a touchdown against JMU, the only surprise was the call in that the Bison haven’t scored on a fake 3-pointer since 2003.
It seemed natural Hendricks was the player to do it.
He spent two years as a backup quarterback before switching to free safety. He played outside linebacker in one game because the Bison were short-handed. Probably more important, there’s just something about having a reliable veteran as the last line of defense. And this year, NDSU's defense was its usual steady self.
The longest scoring play NDSU gave up this year was a 44-yard scoring pass from Delaware’s Nolan Henderson to receiver Chichi Amachi in the third game of the season. The longest scoring run was 28 yards, which happened twice. Javon Williams Jr. from Southern Illinois did it in the second quarter to tie the game 7-7 and Western Illinois’ George Wahee scored in the fourth quarter when the Bison were leading 50-14.
In the title game against JMU, when it really counted, was a 22-yard pass from Ben DiNucci to receiver Riley Stapleton on a drive late in the fourth quarter. The longest run the Bison gave up that game was a 16-yard scramble by DiNucci.
“We have a saying around here that field goals don’t get you beat,” said Bison middle linebacker Jackson Hankey.
This year, Hendricks was the holder on extra points because Entz needed an experienced player with a quarterback background who could suddenly stick the Bison into two-point conversion mode.
They ended up doing that five times this season and were successful on three of them with Hendricks running it in once and throwing to Cody Mauch for another.
In a season when the Bison had new decision makers in the middle of the field (Lance, Schoening and Hankey), the one returning veteran presence in the signal callers was Hendricks.
“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,” Hankey said.
After 16 games, the questions were answered.