Heading in to last year’s national championship tilt with James Madison, Darrius Shepherd was in the midst of his worst season at North Dakota State. The sure-handed wide receiver hadn’t notched triple-digit receiving yards once, and only twice did he top more than six catches in a game. Worst of all was the goose egg he had tallied in the scoring department.
Against the Dukes though, Shepherd finally hit pay dirt, and in critical fashion. The then-junior reeled in a 50-yard touchdown grab, his first of the season and the decisive score in the matchup. When all was said and done, Shepherd turned in his worst statistical season, but was pivotal to the Bison’s sixth FCS championship. Even head coach Chris Klieman joked at the time that his receiver picked a good time to snap the scoreless drought.
Heading in to this year’s national championship game, Shepherd had flipped the script entirely. The Blue Springs, Missouri native enjoyed a renaissance year in 2018, which was capped by a dominant performance in NDSU’s 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington.
Shepherd entered the title game as quarterback Easton Stick’s clear-cut favorite target. The duo formed an imposing pairing this past year, a relationship which had developed across four years, but never fully blossomed until 2018. Shepherd had snagged 57 catches for nearly 940 yards, both of which were career bests. His status as Stick’s go-to would remain unchanged against the Eagles.
With the game hanging in the balance in a raucous third quarter, Shepherd served as the stabilizing force responsible for restoring order to the Bison offense. After the Bison failed to take advantage of an interception and Stick tossed one of his own, the steady wide receiver turned the tide for NDSU.
Thanks to a strip-sack courtesy of Stanley Jones, the Bison had the ball at the edge of the red zone. On third-and-long and needing to capitalize, Stick went to Shepherd. Running a deep post, Shepherd hit a soft spot in EWU’s zone defense. Meanwhile, Stick wheeled out of the pocket and shuffled to his left. The quarterback raised his left arm, pointed to the end zone and Shepherd broke off his route. The ball came in over a sea of white jerseys and dropped into Shepherd’s hands for six.
The Bison led by two touchdowns, but the quick-strike Eagles turned the game into a one-possession contest seconds later. With the Stick-to-Shepherd connection in full force, the lead doubled quickly.
On second down and leading by a touchdown, Shepherd lined up against press coverage on the outside from D’londo Tucker. With eight defenders in the box, Tucker was without safety help over the top. Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham had the perfect play call for his lethal duo.
Stick faked the hand-off to Lance Dunn and then rolled right. By then, Shepherd had put plenty of daylight between himself and Tucker, and there were no other Eagles defenders in sight. With time, Stick stepped up and uncorked a perfect pass over Shepherd’s shoulder. It was a footrace, one that was over the instant Tucker lost his bump-and-run assignment on Shepherd. The double-digit lead was restored, and it was another championship-winning catch and run for the senior.
Shepherd ran roughshod over the Eagles for 125 yards on 5 receptions with 2 touchdowns en route to being named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. The wide receiver eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season and ranked No. 6 among receivers with at least 50 catches in the category with 17.2 yards per catch. He also chipped in 296 punt return yards.
Stick’s chemistry with Shepherd had been long evident, but the pair reached new heights in 2018. For Stick, it’s simple. “How do you not trust a guy that you know is more prepared than anyone that he could possibly be going against? He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around,” Stick commented. “And there’s nobody better.”
At 5-foot-11-inches, the wideout blends speed and sheer determination that has earned the trust of Stick and was impossible to stop in 2018. “Just a daily pursuit of greatness,” Shepherd described the season after hoisting the trophy. “It’s been a long season; 15 weeks to get to this point. And our guys have battled week after week. And just to get to this point is an incredible feeling. And we’re happy to go out on top.”
Capping off a season of career highs and outstanding performances, perhaps there isn’t a single Bison going out on a sweeter note than Darrius Shepherd.