FARGO — The business this week for the North Dakota State football team is to practice for a couple of days, take a mini-holiday break for Thanksgiving and return to work on Saturday. That’s the luxury of getting a first round bye in the 24-team Division I FCS playoffs.
Meanwhile, two more Bison players are giving thanks to post-college all-star games. Tight end Josh Babicz will join fellow tight end Noah Gindorff at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 29. Wide receiver Christian Watson and offensive tackle Cordell Volson accepted invitations to East-West Shrine Bowl Feb. 3 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“It’s something they’ve all earned,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “All have been tremendous football players for us. To have the opportunity to be selected or recognized as one of the best football players in the country regardless of level speaks to their development.”
Both games will be televised by the NFL Network. It will be the fourth straight Shrine game where a Bison player will be represented, starting with offensive lineman Zack W. Johnson in 2017. Offensive guard Austin Kuhnert played in the 2019 game followed by quarterback Easton Stick in 2019 and defensive end Derek Tuszka and tight end Ben Ellefson in 2020.
Cornerback CJ Smith and offensive lineman Zack J. Johnson played in the NFLPA game in 2016 and 2020 respectively.
NDSU players in all-star games have been relatively common over the last decade. What hasn’t been common is Bison players up for FCS national awards. Stats Perform on Monday released its top 25 watch lists for the Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Jerry Rice awards. No NDSU player was on either, although none were expected to be on there, either.
That despite the Bison going 10-1 and receiving the No. 2 overall seed for the FCS playoffs. That was fine with Entz, who said the 10 wins is a bigger deal to him.
“The fact we got better week 1 to week 11, that’s a big deal to me,” Entz said. “You don’t come here for the spotlight. You come here to win games and have opportunities to win conference championships and to be developed.”
What probably hurts NDSU more than anything in the postseason awards department is the team’s depth from year to year. The Bison consistently rotate defensive linemen, cornerbacks and running backs, so accumulating the gaudy statistics that usually goes along with the top candidates doesn’t happen often.
The Payton winner honors the best offensive player, the Buchanan award goes to the top defensive player and the Rice award honors the top freshman. NDSU has had three winners. Quarterback Trey Lance won the 2019 Payton and Rice awards. Defensive end Kyle Emanuel took the 2014 Buchanan honor.
“One, I think we’re playing pretty well defensively and we’re probably not out there (on the field) as long,” Entz said. “We’re using a lot of people as well. There’s not a lot of tackles out there to be made and I think that’s a good thing. … Going back to 2014, Kyle Emanuel is a great example. In 2013 he was one of the best players in the country but in 2014 we played him more and he had some outrageous stats. Our guys up front on the d-line play about a half a game. You’ll never know what kind of stats they could have had.”
For instance, defensive end Brayden Thomas led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in tackles for lost yardage per game and was second in quarterback sacks per game. Yet he rotated snaps.
“We have some pretty good players out there, but not too concerned about the individual accolades,” Entz said.
Entz was named as one of 17 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award that goes to the top FCS coach in the country. Also on that list are two former NDSU assistants: St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso and Montana State head coach Brent Vigen.
Entz said running back Hunter Luepke should be back for the second round playoff game. He said offensive tackle Seth Anderson, a redshirt freshman from Moorhead High, left the team. No word on any sort of transfer or if he’s even in the transfer portal.