FARGO-For a program in recent years that is used to as many FCS titles as losses, the market took a major correction on Aug. 29, 2015. That's when the University of Montana scored on the last play from scrimmage to beat North Dakota State.
More to the point, the Bison defense that had been so stellar in the four previous national championships looked more like a Big Sky Conference outfit that was used to giving up a bunch of points. The drive for five? Shelve that thought.
They rebounded for a while anyway, getting good defensive efforts against Weber State, North Dakota and South Dakota State. But Northern Iowa's Aaron Bailey ran all over the Bison in the second half and NDSU followed that with an unexpected home loss to South Dakota.
"A lot of people wrote these guys off," said head coach Chris Klieman. "We were 4-2, sitting in the locker room. We lost the starting quarterback for the season. We didn't know what Easton Stick was going to do. We had a real tough meeting Monday after that South Dakota game. Everybody bought in to say, 'Hey, we're going to make this run, we're going to rally around Easton Stick and concentrate on winning every day."
On the south stage of Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, with green and yellow confetti flying around the program's 13th national championship trophy, there was no doubt that mission was accomplished.
And there's no getting around the explanation: The 2015 season will go down as one of the best coaching jobs in Bison football history, perhaps rivaling the 1981 team under Don Morton that started the year losing 38-0 to Northern Michigan, but came back to reach the Division II title game, or the 2010 team coach by Craig Bohl that reached the FCS quarterfinals, one year after a 3-8 season.
On defense, the Bison had to replace the FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner in Kyle Emanuel, an honor that goes to the best defensive player in the division. Also gone: two starting safeties in Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik, who played a combined 120 games, as well as a veteran linebacker trio in Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn and Esley Thorton - although Beck was injured before the playoff run last year and was replaced by Nick DeLuca.
The departure of the veterans was evident against Montana, which torched the Bison secondary with 434 yards passing.
On offense, the running backs were looking rather ordinary in trying to replace John Crockett. A couple injuries to the offensive line early in the season didn't help. And then came the USD loss that produced even more anxiety when quarterback Carson Wentz showed up a day later with a broken bone in his throwing wrist.
That was the low point.
So how did NDSU rescue the season? We give you five reasons why.
1. Back to the basics
Again, this was a coaching thing, an emphasis on returning Bison football to its identity of being more physical at the point of attack. There was also a few pointed conversations between the coaching staff and the running backs about what it really means to run harder.
King Frazier was the first running back to go over 100 yards and it took until the eighth game to do it. He had 177 against Southern Illinois, a game in which the Bison rushed for 397 yards. The West Coast, physical offense was back, boosted by better offensive line play.
"Hats off to these seniors for being phenomenal leaders," Klieman said. "Their resolve through adversity this year, unlike any other, has been really special."
2. Easton Stick
The Bison figured they got a blue chip-type of recruit when Stick signed his letter of intent in February of 2014. The Omaha (Neb.) Creighton Prep quarterback had a few FBS offers, including Rutgers of the Big Ten Conference, but kept to his NDSU commitment even with the changing of head coaches from Bohl to Klieman. It didn't take him long to make a difference.
Stick won the backup job in a heated battle with Cole Davis that went from spring football into fall camp. His first carry in his first start against Indiana State was a 29-yard touchdown run, and what followed was eight straight wins to get the Bison to Frisco. Stick completed 61 percent of his passes on 90 of 147 for 1,144 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns to four interceptions. He finished third on the team in rushing with 498 yards and was the first Bison player to go over 100 yards rushing in a game on the season.
"We wouldn't be here without Easton Stick," Klieman said, not long after the title game in Frisco. "You can tell what kind of person Easton is by the article that came out a week ago about his No. 1 goal was to give Carson a chance to play again. What a great young man."
3. Defensive growth
At some point during the season, DeLuca went from being a player whom the coaches harped on to show more leadership to a guy who showed more leadership. The results were noticeable on the field, too. He was simply better in the second half of the season and finished the year with one of the best in the history of the program at middle linebacker with 135 tackles, three quarterback sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The kid who grew up the most, however, was true freshman safety Robbie Grimsley. The Minnesota Mr. Football award winner from Hutchinson was a backup against Montana who looked overwhelmed. NDSU moved him into the starting lineup after the Oct. 24 game at Indiana State, replacing Chris Board, who was moved to linebacker. Grimsley took ownership in the position.
4. Special teams
Nobody was better at the kickoff return and coverage game than NDSU, which rarely allowed a big return by an opponent. It makes a major difference for a team if it's starting a drive closer to midfield than to its own end zone. On the other side, the Bison led the FCS in kickoff return yardage with an average of 29.1 yards, and were led by true freshman Bruce Anderson, who emerged late in the year as a threat to go the distance.
Anderson may have turned in the play of the year when he returned the second-half kickoff against Northern Iowa in the playoffs 97 yards for a touchdown.
5. Playoff pedigree
Call it tradition or whatever coach-speak term you want, something happens to this team at playoff time. Jacksonville State head coach John Grass noticed it in the film room.
"I've said it before, their guys, when the playoffs start, you look at them on film and they're a different team," he said. "They're a different team. They know how to win."
In early August, Klieman said his team's defense will get better as the season goes along, and to not expect too much right away. He was right. The Gamecocks scored 62 points against Sam Houston State in the semifinals. They got one solid drive all day in the title game against NDSU.
The Bison finished fifth in the FCS in scoring defense at 15.3 points per game, but gave up just 9 in four playoff games against teams who were on a roll at the time. Montana had 57 and 54 points in its last two regular season games and beat SDSU in the opening round. The Grizzlies had six yards rushing and just 229 total in the FCS second round.
Northern Iowa had games of 59, 41, 49 and 53 points followed by 401 yards rushing in a second round win at Portland State. The Panthers got just 221 yards against NDSU.
Richmond had 556 total yards in a quarterfinal upset win at Illinois State, but had just 38 yards rushing in the semifinals at the Fargodome.
That defense that the Bison put on the field in Missoula?
It was a far different team in the playoffs.