For just the second time in the program’s eight-year title run, the North Dakota State Bison finished a season undefeated, defeating Eastern Washington 38-24 in the FCS National Championship.
The 2018 squad filled to the brim with seniors and a head coach with three national championships capped off their careers, matching the 2013 Bison team in going the entire season without defeat.
“We sat down as seniors with coach (Klieman) in July and said, ‘Why can’t we be the best ever?’” Bison quarterback Easton Stick said. “I’m not saying we are the greatest ever, but we worked and we tried to put ourselves in this position.”
It was a tried and true formula for the Bison against an Eagles team making their first appearance in Texas since winning the title in 2010. The opening drive took 6 minutes and 50 seconds off the clock and ended with a Cam Pedersen field goal.
Controlling the time of possession was a big key against an explosive Eastern Washington offense. That offense came unstuck early with a pair of penalties for 20 yards, leading to a punt.
NDSU took quick control on the second possession. Running back Ty Brooks streaked for a 50-yard rush on the first play to set the Bison up in the red zone. Three plays later, Stick kept the ball up the middle and was in for the first touchdown on the day.
A field goal by EWU cut the lead to a single score, but the Bison offense continued to play keep away effectively. Stick and the Bison running backs marched down the field on a 10-play, nearly 6-minute drive that ended with the senior signal-caller rounding the corner for his second score of the day.
The Code Green defense continued to shut down the Eagles offense. Bison linebacker Levi Jordheim picked off Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere for the first turnover of the day. It was the first career interception for the senior out of Dickinson, North Dakota.
But momentum swung in favor of the Eagles at the end of the half. Tight end Jayce Gilder was the go-to receiver on the final drive of the half. Barriere found the redshirt junior on consecutive plays to get the Eagles into the red zone, where their progress was stopped.
The field goal unit came out for the Eagles on fourth-and-goal. Some miscommunication saw Bison cornerback Marquise Bridges not play the safe option and rush the kick. Gilder leaked into space and took a flip pass from the holder to score. The halftime score line read 17-10 after the touchdown.
“It was in the front pocket,” Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best said on the fake.
Momentum changed hands no less than five times in the first five minutes of the third quarter. James Hendricks intercepted Barriere’s first pass of the half.
Eastern Washington got the ball right back as D’londo Tucker cut under the route to pick off Stick.
With Barriere on the sideline getting his hand looked at, backup quarterback Gunner Talkington fumbled the ball while taking a sack from Stanley Jones. “Johnny-on-the-spot” Jones jumped on the loose ball to give the Bison possession.
“They had momentum going into halftime. We took the momentum right back and then gave it back to them again, and then Stanley makes a great play,” Klieman said.
The Bison air attack then notched their first score of the afternoon. Stick bought time leaving the pocket and motioned for Darrius Shepherd to head to the pylon. The senior receiver modified his route, and Stick put a touch pass over a defender into Shepherd’s hands for the score.
The good vibes were quickly squashed. Eagles running back Sam McPherson broke free on the first play after the touchdown. A nifty move on Robbie Grimsley left McPherson untouched on a 75-yard jaunt.
Stick and Shepherd were not going to be outdone. The Eagles loaded the box, leaving Shepherd one-on-one on the outside. A double-move left the receiver with a couple steps on his defender on the play-action pass. Stick uncorked the pass and hit his man in stride for the 78-yard score.
“We ran a similar naked bunch throughout the couple years, ran it in the first couple of drives earlier in the game,” Stick said. “Guys set it up well up front on the run fake, and (Shepherd) did the rest.”
Up two scores, the Bison set about draining the clock. A 19-play, 88-yard drive that ended with Pedersen missing a field goal did its job by taking over 10 minutes off the clock.
Barriere made it interesting, engineering a quick four-play drive and capping it with a 5-yard rushing score.
Grimsley collected the ensuing onside kick to practically ice the game. Stick iced the cake and added the cherry on top with his 17th rushing touchdown of the year.
For the 24 seniors and Klieman, it is a fitting end to storybook careers. Only five teams in FCS history have gone undefeated en route to a championship.
“(It) hasn’t been done very often, and we wanted to raise the bar and do it better than it’s ever been done,” Stick said after collecting his FCS-record 49th win as a quarterback.
Shepherd added, “Just a daily pursuit of greatness.”
Questions of that greatness will be tested next year. The team will face its biggest turnover in the dynasty with former defensive coordinator Matt Entz taking the helm as Klieman and four assistants leave for Kansas State.
A new offense with a new quarterback will take the field for the first time in Minneapolis. NDSU will meet Butler at Target Field on the final day of August.