The lasting image for North Dakota State was a group hug near midfield by a few players, like Cole Jacob, Zach Kubas and Nash Jensen. It was the last time leaving a college football field for Kubas and Jacob, two seniors.
The heartbreak of a 24-20 loss to Sam Houston on a warm, sunny day was a tough result for a team used to winning in Texas. The end to three straight Division I FCS championships and eight in nine years was weirdo theatre. If it were part of a movie, think of the most unusual way to tie a game at 17-17, and this would be it.
Bona fide Oscar performance.
And it didn’t end with the final score. Head coach Matt Entz’s post-game zoom press conference was briefly halted because of a fire alarm in a Sam Houston building the Bison used as a locker room.
“We had a lot of belief up until the very end,” said Bison defensive end Logan McCormick. “It’s shocking. I’m still kind of speechless, I can’t comprehend what’s going on. This is new for me, this is new for a lot of people.”
Down 17-2 in the third quarter, NDSU scored on a 94-yard kickoff return by Christian Watson. After holding the Bearkats to a three-and-out, Braylon Henderson returned the enusing punt 76 yards for a touchdown and Cam Miller’s two-point conversion pass tied the game midway in the third quarter.
The breakneck change of momentum had a good contingent of Bison fans in a frenzy.
“Very alive, a lot of energy,” Henderson said.
Henderson, from Plano, Texas, had around 20 family and friends. It was his first punt return for a touchdown counting his high school days.
“Finally happened,” he said.
Want more weirdo theatre? The Bison didn’t run their first offensive play until 5:45 remained in the third quarter, and that lasted only two passes. Miller’s pass was picked off by Sam Houston’s Markel Perry near midfield.
It was reminiscent of NDSU’s last playoff loss, 38-31, to Eastern Washington in the snow and red turf of 2010 that had its strange moments. The Bison scored on a kickoff return and an interception return in that one and like Sunday, it came down to NDSU needing a key offensive play to win.
The famous fumble, or no-fumble, of course ended the Eastern game. Against Sam, the Bison, after taking over with 3:39 remaining at their own 25-yard line, got a key pass interference call on fourth-and-5, which gave the Bison the ball at their 45.
Running back Dominic Gonnella, on third-and-1, got loose for 22 yards to the 25. Facing third-and-2, Miller recovered his own fumble on a lateral play that wasn’t going anywhere anyway, but it did force a fourth-and-6.
His pass attempt to tight end Noah Gindorff was high, setting off a major league celebration at Bowers Stadium. Miller, meanwhile, left the field feeling a burden of 8 of 17 passing and two interceptions.
“I feel sick to my stomach, I feel I let my team down,” he said. “I just feel like the execution wasn’t there. Right now I take all the blame. I know it’s a team game but if I could take back four or five throws I wish I could. But you can’t do that.”
Let’s pump the brakes on letting the team down, Cam. It wasn’t your fault. For starters, you’re a true freshman. Asking an 18-year-old to win playoff games on the road isn’t your fault.
It was the worst QB scenario NDSU could have asked for with a spring season. Trey Lance left for the NFL Draft. Zeb Noland, a fifth-year senior, struggled. Quincy Patterson, the transfer from Virginia Tech, wasn’t eligible.
“I told Cam in the locker room I got his back,” Entz said. “I love the fact he’s a Bison and I love the fact he’s a competitor. Believe me, if there’s anyone in the locker room who is crushed, it’s Cam Miller right now. I’m not going to sit in here and take shots at an 18 year old who did more than most 18 year olds could have in that situation.”
There was no questioning Miller’s effort of preparation. He was constantly in the Bison office studying film. He said he felt prepared for the Bearkats.
“I’m looking forward to him getting better over the summer,” Entz said.
Despite the offensive struggles, the Bison held a 20-17 lead late in the game after a 33-yard field goal into the wind from Jake Reinholz. But the Bison couldn’t close the deal on the doorstep of the Sam Houston end zone when they had the chance.
“It’s just something we don’t experience a lot here, we pride ourselves on winning and being the best,” Watson said. “To come up short like that, it’s a different emotion that’s running through us. We competed our tails off every play and to come up short hits deep.”
It was the last game for not only Kubas, Jacob and Noland but for punter Garret Wegner and long snapper Ross Kennelly, as well.
For eight years, the last game in Texas for NDSU seniors ended on a stage at Toyota Stadium with green and yellow confetti flying everywhere.
“I told them how much I appreciated them and loved them,” Entz said. “Ninety-nine percent of our guys we’ll have back. The one percent of guys, I’m upset we couldn’t give them one more game.”