They have grown used to practicing at this time of year, preparing for what has become an annual trip to Frisco, Texas. Yet first-year coach Chris Klieman knew it was going to be much tougher for North Dakota State to return to the Football Championship Series title game this season.
Coach Craig Bohl, who led the Bison to three consecutive FCS championships, left in December 2013 to become coach at Wyoming. Most of his assistant coaches also departed, and two dozen seniors — including record-setting quarterback Brock Jensen — had finished their college careers. “I told our new assistants, ‘You know, it’s been unbelievable these last three years,’ ” said Klieman, who joined the Bison staff in 2011. “I don’t know if we can keep this thing going, but I think we have a pretty good football team.”
In the midst of all that upheaval, the bottom line has remained constant: The Bison (14-1) will play for another FCS title Saturday in Frisco. They will face a familiar foe — fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference member Illinois State (13-1) — with a chance to become the first team to win four FCS championships in a row.
The seven assistant coaches Klieman hired last January bonded quickly with a team determined to continue what its predecessors had built. The Bison enter Saturday ranked No. 2 in scoring defense (13.2 points per game) and No. 3 in total defense (270.8 yards), and quarterback Carson Wentz broke Jensen’s records for passing yards and total offense in his first season as a starter.
Defensive end Kyle Emanuel, who was named the FCS defensive player of the year, said he knew “the sky was the limit” after NDSU opened the season with a 34-14 upset of Iowa State on the road. On the way to Frisco, it tied Illinois State atop the MVFC standings for a share of its fourth conference title in a row and has run its FCS playoff record to 17-1.
“When you have so many new faces, it’s never easy,” said Emanuel, who leads the FCS in tackles for loss (31) and sacks (19½). “In the preseason, you always have doubts about whether you can get back [to the championship game]. But coach Klieman and his staff did a tremendous job.”
Klieman had been the Bison’s defensive coordinator for two seasons, and Emanuel said he was the players’ choice to replace Bohl. Though Klieman stressed that he is not a Bohl clone, he also saw no reason to make substantial changes to a program that entered this season on a 24-game winning streak.
If that was to continue, Emanuel said, the upperclassmen needed to work in concert with the new coaching staff to prepare younger players for larger roles. That schooling began during winter workouts and helped the Bison to a 9-0 start before they lost at Northern Iowa on Nov. 8. They quickly regrouped and pushed their playoff victory streak to 15 games, including a 35-3 drubbing of Sam Houston State in the semifinals on Dec. 19.
Wentz, one of the most efficient passers in the FCS, set school records with 2,874 passing yards and 3,429 yards of offense this season, while senior running back John Crockett — a Minneapolis native and Totino-Grace graduate — has run for 1,920 yards, also a program best. Seven Bison have been chosen to All-America teams, including Crockett, Emanuel and junior offensive tackle Joe Haeg of Brainerd.
As many as 20,000 Bison boosters are expected to travel to the game, as NDSU tries to join Division III Augustana (Ill.) as the second team to win four NCAA football titles in a row. Though the Bison have become familiar with Frisco in recent years, Klieman said this trip will feel anything but routine.
“You don’t get to a national championship game very often by having a new head coach, two new coordinators, a new offensive line and a new interior line unless people really get along and have great chemistry, and coaches and players alike buy in,” Klieman said. “And they’ve done that.
“We don’t take it for granted. We know how hard it is to get there. To get there four years in a row is nothing short of remarkable.”