FARGO — Fifteen games. Fifteen victories.
It doesn’t get much more in the way of perfection for the North Dakota State football team. The Bison completed their dream season last weekend with a 38-24 win over Eastern Washington in the Division I FCS national championship game.
It was the seventh title in eight years for a program that has established itself as the premier dynasty in all of college football. Mount Union (Ohio) won nine NCAA Division II titles in 13 years beginning in 1996 and ending in 2008. Carroll College (Mont.) took the NAIA championship six times in a nine-year period from 2002-10.
Alabama won five FBS titles in 10 years.
Nobody won five in a row and nobody went 7 of 8. A program cannot do that unless all systems are a go, from the administration to the coaches to the players to the fan and financial support base.
There are no weaknesses in the organization.
And when it came to the 2018 team, there were no glaring weaknesses on the field. Sure, in football, it’s always possible to nitpick at something but on the whole, the Bison were solid on offense, defense and special teams.
For starters, the Bison had the best dual-threat quarterback in the FCS and perhaps one of the top at that role in the country. Head coach Chris Klieman called Easton Stick the “best player in college football” on a few occasions.
Stick was dynamic all season and when the Bison needed him to raise his running game in the semifinals and title game, he delivered.
Throwing caution into the wind when it came to being susceptible to injury, Stick had 16 carries for 147 yards and three touchdowns in the 44-21 win over South Dakota State that sent the Bison to Frisco.
He had 18 carries for 121 yards and another three scores against Eastern Washington. He also added two touchdown passes to receiver Darrius Shepherd that were a thing of beauty. The first, a 23-yarder while scrambling to his left and throwing it off balance with his right hand, came on third-and-8. The second was a 78-yard bomb in which Stick got leveled moments after delivering the throw.
No problem. It was right on the money and Shepherd did the rest. It made it 31-17 in the third quarter and stood as the game-winning score.
He put the exclamation point on the win with a 46-yard run with 59 seconds remaining. It wrapped up 15 games of perfection.
How was all this accomplished? We give you three reasons: Maturity, coaching and 10 home games.
The Eastern Washington game was the last for 24 seniors. Everybody knows about the stars like Stick, Shepherd, running backs Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn, offensive center Tanner Volson, defensive end Greg Menard and safety Robbie Grimsley. There were 12 other seniors in the two-deep chart: left guard Colin Conner, right guard Luke Bacon, tight end Nate Jenson, wide receiver Dallas Freeman, defensive ends Caleb Butler and Stanley Jones, defensive tackles Blake Williams and Aaron Steidl, linebackers Levi Jordheim and Dan Marlette, cornerback Jalen Allison and safety Jaylaan Wimbush.
But don’t forget about the seniors who hardly saw the light of day on Saturdays. Guys like receiver Eric Bachmeier and cornerbacks Bryce Bennot and Ross Effertz.
They are called program guys, players who make practice Monday through Friday that much more productive because they know how to practice and what they’re doing.
“They love hanging out and giving it their all,” Menard said. “They work just as hard as guys like us on the other side of the ball. It’s crazy, I don’t know how they stick around sometimes but they love it.”
On the whole, that many seniors brings a maturity to a team that can’t be replicated in practice. It can’t be forced, it just has to happen. Need evidence? Look to NDSU’s third-down conversion rate, both offensive and defensively.
Behind Stick, the Bison were 98 of 187 on third down for a 52 percent success rate, which ranked them third in the country. In the national title game against Eastern Washington, they were 11 of 17 including four straight in a 10-minute drive in the fourth quarter.
On defense, opponents were successful just 28 percent of the time, the eighth-best performance in the FCS. Eastern Washington was 3 of 12.
It sounds simple enough. Coach the team. Coach the players. But the Bison staff appeared to take its talent to another level this season, especially offensively. NDSU set records for most points and most touchdowns in one season.
Stick notched the FCS record for most career wins by a starting quarterback with 49, surpassing by one former NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen. Stick leaves NDSU with a 49-3 career mark; Jensen was 47-5.
By going 15-0, Klieman left NDSU for Kansas State with a 69-6 record and tied Youngstown State’s Jim Tressel for the most FCS championships by a head coach with four. In his eight years at NDSU including three as an assistant, Klieman has more FCS national title rings (seven) than he did losses as a head coach (six).
It’s probably impossible to put data to it, but offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham quite possibly had the best year of his career in terms of play calling. It’s also impossible to put data it, but Stick’s ability to constantly change a play at the line of scrimmage had immeasurable results.
“I felt like as the season has gone along, we continued to figure out how to use more pieces of the puzzle,” Messingham said.
The puzzle included the offensive line that had five players start every game. It was a veteran group that was used to veteran offensive line coach Conor Riley. Six assistants in all coached together at NDSU for at least five years: Riley, defensive coordinator Matt Entz, quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg, defensive backs coach Joe Klanderman, fullbacks-tight ends coach Tyler Roehl and defensive line coach Nick Goeser.
10 home games
There is no place like dome at NDSU. Since first entering the FCS playoffs in 2010, the Bison have turned Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome into the best home field advantage in the subdivision. An argument can be made it’s one of the toughest places to play in all of college football.
So how does a program take advantage of that? Schedule seven regular season games at home and then add three more in the FCS playoffs. The 10 represent the most home games in one season in the history of the program.
The Bison ended the season outscoring their opponents 41.5 points per game to 12.6, but, ironically, the toughest tests came at home with the 21-17 win over South Dakota State to open the Missouri Valley Football Conference slate being at the top of the list.
NDSU also slugged out a 28-14 win over Illinois State and edged Youngstown State 17-7 at home. The Bison outscored their four road foes by an average of 49.3-14.8.
NDSU averaged 18,106 fans in those 10 games. The four road games drew an average of 6,855 a game, the disparity most noticeable on third down. At home or on the road, Stick didn’t have to resort to a silent count with the exception of at Northern Iowa at times.
At home, opposing quarterbacks always had to use the silent count.
There was no place like home.
And there was no season like 2018. Fifteen games. Fifteen victories.