FRISCO, Texas – Four national championships. Three losses.
That is North Dakota State’s résumé the past four years after quarterback Carson Wentz scored a touchdown with 37 seconds left and linebacker Esley Thorton intercepted a pass to seal the Bison’s thrilling 29-27 victory over Illinois State on Saturday in the Football Championship Subdivision title game.
NDSU (15-1) is the first team to win four straight FCS titles. The Bison are 58-3 since the beginning of the 2011 season.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” said senior linebacker Carlton Littlejohn, a Minneapolis North product. “You never dream of coming to college and winning four straight national championships, only losing three games. That’s something you only dream about, something that happens in video games or something like that.”
This one was the most difficult title victory. It took late-game heroics from Wentz, Thornton and receiver RJ Urzendowski to overcome Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson.
Roberson’s 58-yard TD sprint through a yawning hole in the Bison defense with 1:38 left gave the Redbirds a 27-23 lead and quieted about 17,000 NDSU fans who mostly filled Toyota Stadium. The normally stout NDSU defense didn’t have an answer for Roberson in the second half, and the transfer from Indiana and former Hoosiers starter finished with 161 rushing yards and three touchdown passes.
But for the second time in the playoffs, Wentz led the Bison on a winning drive in the final minute. The first was against South Dakota State in NDSU’s first playoff game, when he hit Urzendowski for a TD with 54 seconds left to beat the Jackrabbits 27-24 at the Fargodome.
Urzendowski played a big role in this comeback, too. The true freshman caught passes of 32, 13 and 33 yards on the winning drive. The third reception came after Wentz tossed a wobbly, underthrown pass and Urzendowski battled Illinois State’s DraShane Glass for the ball and came down with it at the Redbirds 5-yard line.
A play later, Wentz kept the ball and burst through the left side of the Illinois State defensive line into the end zone.
“With our guys, you never saw any doubt in their mind. You never saw any panic in their eyes,” Bison first-year coach Chris Klieman said. “We’ve obviously been in this situation before, even in the playoffs, and our guys just know it’s our time. When you have the success that we’ve had over the past four years, guys just know how to win.”
Two Roberson runs and a pass to Lechein Neblett moved Illinois State to its 44, but Thorton then wrestled the ball away from Joe Farmer for a clinching interception with 8 seconds remaining.
The Bison led 20-7 midway through the third quarter after Totino-Grace product John Crockett bulled his way for a 7-yard TD run. The Redbirds answered with two Roberson TD passes to James O’Shaughnessy, including a 41-yarder after the quarterback scrambled away from the Bison defense.
The Redbirds (13-2) trailed 23-21 with 8:05 left in the fourth quarter, setting up Roberson’s scoring run.
“I just told our players after the game that you didn’t lose the game, you just ran out of time,” Illinois State coach Brock Spack said.
NDSU, which won eight national titles in Division II before moving to Division I’s lower level a decade ago, has put an unprecedented stamp on the FCS the past four years. In addition to the four titles, the Bison won a division record 33 consecutive games before losing late this season. The Bison have won four straight against FBS teams.
This year’s title came after the previous coach, Craig Bohl, left for Wyoming and took much of his staff. The Bison lost 24 seniors off 2013’s unbeaten champions.
“I think if we would have came in here as true freshmen and said that our goal was to win four national championships, our goal is to have [ESPN’s] ‘College GameDay’ come to Fargo two times, people would have laughed at us,” Thorton said. “Before the season, if we would’ve said we were going to win our fourth national championship after losing 24 seniors, I think people would have laughed at us, too.”