Amidst yet another December playoff run — or more accurately, the annual march to a national title — the North Dakota State football program embraced a new era. During a week in which the Bison were set to square off with their chief rival, all eyes were on the changing of the guard.
Head coach Chris Klieman tossed the keys of the NDSU dynasty to defensive coordinator Matt Entz. Klieman jetted down to Manhattan, Kansas to breathe life into a once-great Kansas State program, while Entz scrambled to replace his predecessor. In a state of flux, the Jackrabbits came to Fargo and upset the No. 1 seeded Bison.
The only issue with the aforementioned storyline is that it couldn’t have been further from reality. The old guard had business to tidy up before going their separate ways. In addition to Klieman, the old guard included an otherworldly class of 24 seniors, 14 in which started in the 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington.
NDSU handily dispatched their southern rivals in the semifinals and punched a ticket to Frisco. It then became a matter of time before green and yellow confetti rained inside of Toyota Stadium.
Of course, there was still business to be settled on the gridiron, as EWU sought to derail the old guard’s send-off. For that, NDSU’s seniors did what they’ve always done over the course of the past five years.
A familiar trio took care of the scoring, as Easton Stick, Darrius Shepherd and Cam Pedersen accounted for all 38 of the Bison’s points. Pedersen opened the scoring with a 36-yard field goal.
Stick found the end zone on consecutive drives in the first half to put the Bison ahead by the same margin.
Suddenly though, Eastern Washington turned the matchup on its head with a touchdown off of a fake field goal. The Bison entered the locker room nursing a seven-point lead.
The game devolved into utter chaos in the opening minute of the second half. Both Eric Barriere and Stick traded interceptions, with each side coughing up an opportunity to swing the pendulum. But what has so often been true of the Bison and this senior class is that when one individual falters, help is never far away.
That aid came in the form of a Stanley Jones pass rush following the Stick interception. As the Eagles sought to tie the game, the Bismarck, North Dakota product turned in a potentially game-saving play. After coming free of a block, Jones had an open lane to backup quarterback Gunner Talkington. The redshirt freshman sought to elude the rush, but Jones slapped the ball free and dove on the fumble.
The strip sack was all Stick would need to restore order. Three plays later, the man who — at 49-3 — became the winningest quarterback in FCS history, gave the Bison a two-touchdown cushion. Stick slid out of the pocket and looked for none other than Shepherd. The quarterback pointed Shepherd to the end zone and lofted a pass over four defenders for the score.
Still, the duo needed one more moment of magic to seal the win. With the lead trimmed to one score, Stick went back to the well for one final flash of brilliance. Off of play action, Stick rolled right and saw Shepherd streaking past D’londo Tucker. The quarterback stepped up and uncorked a 78-yard bomb for Shepherd, who raced away with the winning score.
Eastern Washington compiled a last-gasp two-minute drill to narrow the gap, but after recovering the following onside kick, the Bison sealed the win. On a read option, Stick tucked it and found a gaping hole at the line of scrimmage. Seniors Luke Bacon, Colin Conner and Tanner Volson plowed through the Eagles’ front, and Stick raced away for a 46-yard dagger.
The triumph was less a feather in the cap of college football’s greatest dynasty and more an exercise of catharsis. By dispatching the Eagles, NDSU delivered one final salvo for their coach and his eldest charges, a swan song masquerading as a football game. With the trophy in hand and confetti pouring from the sky, Bison fans mobbed the field and saluted their departing old guard. Chants of “Thank you Klieman” rang through the Texas air, as was the case three weeks prior against the Jacks.
It was an offseason meeting that sparked the senior class’ pursuit to go out on top, as Klieman and Co. explained afterward. “We sat down as seniors with Coach (Klieman) in July and said ‘Why can’t we be the greatest ever? Why can’t we be perfect?’” Stick remarked. “It hasn’t been done very often, but we wanted to raise the bar and do it better than it’s ever been done.” While Stick didn’t offer a verdict on whether or not this Bison squad is the greatest ever, it’s almost impossible to answer in anything but the affirmative.
The dust will settle on the 2018 season, a year that will always be linked with 2013’s undefeated title season. Klieman will head to Kansas State. Headlined by Stick, some of the seniors will pursue professional careers. Others such as English major and poet Jaaylan Wimbush will go in vastly different directions. But as the book closes on another historic era of Bison football, 24 seniors and their coach will forever be known by one word: perfection.