Rewind back to Dec. 16, 2017. The James Madison Dukes knocked off the North Dakota State Bison in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs.
It was the first time in six seasons that the Bison lost a playoff game. With that, questions were asked about the North Dakota State dynasty being ended.
Three weeks later, the Dukes claimed the crown with a style of play reminiscent of the Bison’s — a strong run game, physical lines and an overall strength that is a rare occurrence in the FCS.
A year later, the rematch for the national championship brought a chance for either program to establish, or re-establish, a dynasty.
“A lot of institutions can have a great team here and there. But those are two great programs, and what a difference between having a great team and a great program,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman said.
While a team can leave memories, a program leaves a longer legacy. For the players, that legacy of past teams, and the culture they left behind, still imprints the players.
“It is a legacy,” Bison senior linebacker Nick DeLuca said. “Like the guys who came before us at the foundation and laid the tradition for us, we were excited to get back here.”
The reunion of players during the Bison’s final walkthrough served as a reminder of that.
“To be out there (Friday) at our walkthrough, to see 200, 300 former players be around, that is what makes this place so special. It is not just the past six or seven years, it’s been going on for a long time.”
After that walkthrough on Friday, Tre Dempsey summed up the Bison’s mentality in just 14 words.
“They beat us last year, and I am looking to take our title back.”
It is a bold claim, but one that makes total sense when it comes to the culture instilled into the team. But it is one that leads to a goal for each year.
“It is an expectation to get back to this game and the National Championship. We take that on as a responsibility, and it is something we have as a goal each year,” DeLuca said.
As Bison quarterback Easton Stick scrambled around to kill off the final four seconds, the North Dakota State dynasty was back on top. For the sixth time, NDSU was national champions, tying Georgia Southern for the most in FCS history.
“It is unbelievably hard,” Klieman said when asked to explain the difficulty of getting six championships.
For each championship, there always seems to be one injury that makes the drive difficult. The “next man up” mantra means a lot to the team and is instilled into young players early. They are groomed for the big moments the team will reach, as the underclassmen showed in the championship.
“Do you think (sophomore cornerback) Marquise Bridges thought he was going to be here, on a podium with his name in front of him? He was wide receiver last year at this time. Now he is starting in a national championship game. Josh Hayes is a true freshman that never started a game. And he started a national championship game,” Klieman said. “That’s North Dakota State; that’s Bison pride.”
While the cornerbacks win the most unlikely starter award, other young guns on defense made their mark.
For the last two offensive plays for the Dukes, quarterback Bryan Schor had pressure incoming as he looked for the end zone. On third down, it was sophomore Derrek Tuszka, who had already sacked Schor twice and nearly had a third.
On the final heave to the end zone, freshman Jabril Cox got into the face of the quarterback, forcing a throw into coverage.
When everyone in the collective buys into a single idea, success happens. For NDSU, it is the Bison Pride that the players buy into, and that is something that can’t be explained.
“Bison Pride and NDSU, we always talk; we are different. And if I could tell you why, I would retire and make a million dollars selling it. But I can’t tell you. It’s hard, but it’s just different. It’s special,” Klieman said.
Then again, given how Klieman hid the injury status of a large group of players in the lead-up to the game, only to comment on them after it was over, expect that book out after he retires.