Of the seven trips to Frisco the North Dakota State Bison have made in the last eight years, this one will be the most emotional.
The 24 Bison seniors and head coach Chris Klieman took advantage of one last game inside the Fargodome, and to make it more dramatic, the guests in Fargo were the rival South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
“Never underestimate the power of people who love each other and support each other,” said Klieman, who accepted the Kansas State head coaching job on Monday. “All the things that happened this week, all it did was galvanize the locker room.
For those 25, it was a storybook ending for their careers inside the ‘Dome, as the Bison stomped the Jacks 44-21 to advance to the FCS Championship.
The packed Fargodome was electric from the opening kick, and the action on the gridiron followed suit.
For the first time all year, the Jackrabbits failed to score first. The Bison ground game got rolling on their second drive, led by quarterback Easton Stick. The senior quarterback ran like a tailback, finishing his first two runs with authority.
“I think a little bit knowing you have three weeks to recover,” Stick said. “Everybody was going to give everything they could to make sure we won this football game.”
The Omaha product reminded everyone he still has an arm, hitting Seth Wilson on a wheel route down to the Jacks’ 5-yard line. Stick would run it in two plays later, getting the edge set by running back Bruce Anderson.
“Easton Stick is the best player in college football. Period,” Klieman said.
The key for the Bison defense was going to be containing quarterback Taryn Christion. Christion was able to be his usual slippery self, eluding the rush. However, the senior had to sit out a play after taking a hit while sliding from Bison safety James Hendricks.
His absence did little to hinder the Jacks for the one play, as Pierre Strong Jr. broke for a 25-yard gain. Strong capped the drive with a 30-yard score to knot the game.
NDSU restored the lead just before the break, again with the legs of Stick. Stick picked up blocks from everyone and finished a tough 34-yard jaunt with a stiff-arm to get into the end zone.
In the third quarter, it was the Bison ground game that took control. Seth Wilson broke for 78 yards on the first play of the half, and Bruce Anderson went over the top of the pile to punch in from the 1-yard line.
“The line did a great job opening it up,” Wilson said. “I just put on the gas and went right on through.”
Christion hit his first big pass of the day the following drive, finding Isaiah Hill for 47 yards deep into Bison territory. Christion hit his tight end Blake Kunz to cut the deficit to seven.
NDSU responded three times the next drive, but penalties took touchdown runs by Anderson and Stick off the board. Undeterred, the pair combined on a passing play to secure the six points.
Code Green forced SDSU backward on the next drive, and it quickly became a three-score game. Anderson made a cut and accelerated to the edge to score on a 41-yard run.
Once again, the Jacks pulled a rabbit out of a hat to keep the game close. Christion unloaded a 52-yard dime to Cade Johnson for another touchdown.
But NDSU strangled away the game with a vintage drive. A healthy dose of Adam Cofield relieving a beat-up running back corps and a pair of third-down conversions by Stick chewed clock. By the time Cam Pedersen spilt the uprights for three points, NDSU chewed over nine minutes off the clock.
Stick completed his hat trick of rushing touchdowns late to lead to the final score. Robbie Grimsley collected a pick off of Christion, and Cofield frosted the cake with a 51-yard run to finish the game.
NDSU move on to Frisco for the National Championship to face off against Eastern Washington. The Eagles dispatched Maine 50-19 to advance. The Eagles won the last playoff matchup in overtime in 2010, but the Bison have won the last two games in the last three seasons.