By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
HOW WERE THE BISON VIEWED IN THE PRESEASON?
I did the Missouri Valley Football Conference preview for College Sporting News and thought that NDSU would repeat as champions. After a 14-1 repeat national championship season last year, I felt the Bison would again make the postseason as MVFC champions after they won their second Division I title in 2012.
The preseason poll by the coaches, media, and sports information directors within the MVFC also picked NDSU and they were the top preseason pick by just about all national media outlets.
HOW DID THE BISON FINISH AN UNDEFEATED 11-0 RECORD WITHIN THE 2013 REGULAR SEASON?
The highlights of the regular season had to be their win over Football Bowl Subdivision Kansas State and a home win over early season contender Northern Iowa, as well as a road win at rival South Dakota State.
NDSU defeated the FBS Wildcats 24-21 in a game that showed early on that the Bison had the potential to be one of the top FCS schools again this year. The game was against a bowl win team in KSU that just wrapped its 2013 season with a bowl win over Michigan last Saturday.
NDSU defeated Dakota Marker rival South Dakota State 20-0 on the road to start the MVFC slate and then traditionally tough Northern Iowa with a 24-23 come from behind win after that. That was the closest Bison win and aside from the three point win over Kansas State, the next closest margin of victory was the home win over Missouri State 41-26.
The Bison finished in the top ranking of the Gridiron Power Index (GPI) which they lead all season.
The strong, undefeated season bolted the Bison to the top playoff seed meaning all playoff games would be played inside their Fargodome for a second straight season.
The Bison used a strong defense led by first team All-MVFC performers in senior cornerback Marcus Williams and senior linebacker Grant Olson on the best defense in most statistical categories this year.
Williams was not only an All-MVFC selection but also named as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season. Williams had opposing teams shy away from passing towards him but he still recorded five interceptions for 125 return yards, four pass breakups and 27 tackles. He also has two touchdowns and 558 total return yards, including on special teams.
Olson leads the Bison with an astounding 146 tackles. He's also second on the team with 11.5 tackles for loss.
The offense was headed by All-MVFC offensive linemen Billy Turner. He headed an offensive line that opened holes for a run-orientated West Coast offense.
Senior quarterback Brock Jensen, the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, ran the offense and utilized senior running back Sam Ojuri and junior John Crockett. But Jensen also used junior wide receivers Ryan Smith and Zach Vraa to have a more balanced attack in the passing game.
Head coach Craig Bohl was also the MVFC Coach of the Year and the Sports Network Coach of the Year for the second year for both categories.
HOW DID NORTH DAKOTA STATE WIN ITS OPENING ROUND PLAYOFF GAME?
Quarterback Brock Jensen completed 15 of 25 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns, and had a game-high 86 yards rushing including a 53-yard score in the fourth quarter as North Dakota State notched its 21st straight victory, 38-10 over Furman. The Paladins ended its season 8-6 overall.
NDSU led 10-7 at the half before scoring three third quarter touchdowns. Ryan Smith's 28-yard run down the left sideline keyed by tight end Kevin Vaadeland's block set up a 3-yard touchdown by running back Sam Ojuri that made it 17-7. Ojuri ran 15 times for 75 yards.
Andrew Bonnet scored on a 7-yard pass and cornerback Marcus Williams took his 21st career interception 61 yards for a touchdown to give NDSU a 31-7 lead. With that return, Williams became the FCS record holder with seven interception returns for touchdown.
NDSU's defense had two goal-line stops on fourth down. Anthony LaVoy and linemates stuffed Reese Hannon on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to stall a 94-yard Furman drive and keep the game scoreless in the second quarter. The Bison answered with a 99-yard march in 10 plays capped by Jensen's 52-yard pass to Zach Vraa down the right sideline.
NDSU stuffed Furman again in the fourth quarter when Esley Thorton got in on two tackles on goal-to-go from the 2 and 1 before Furman quarterback Reese Hannon fumbled a fourth-down snap for a three-yard loss. NDSU ran the ball all nine plays on the ensuing 95-yard drive capped by Jensen's 53-yard touchdown.
The one issue in the game was linebacker Grant Olson was injured in the third quarter and did not return.
North Dakota State moved on to host Coastal Carolina in a quarterfinal playoff matchup.
HOW DID THE BISON BEAT COASTAL CAROLINA IN THE QUARTERFINAL ROUND?
North Dakota State had its best offensive output in six years and marched to a 48-14 victory over Coastal Carolina despite a week of distraction with Coach Bohl’s announcement that he will be headed to Wyoming to take over their head coaching position next season. Bohl will stay on this season to finish the playoff run and defensive coordinator Chris Klieman will take over the head coaching spot for NDSU next season.
NDSU's 623 yards of total offense was the most since 2007 against Illinois State, and the Bison had seven players combine for 424 rushing yards - the most in 17 years since a 1996 win over Minnesota State Mankato. Sam Ojuri led the charge with 162 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
Bison quarterback Brock Jensen accounted for four touchdowns including runs from the 10 and 1 and a pair of scoring tosses to Zach Vraa from 31 yards and Kevin Vaadeland from the 2. Jensen finished 14 of 21 passing for 187 yards to seven different receivers led by Vraa's 78 yards on five catches.
Adam Keller's 26-yard field goal on NDSU's first possession opened the scoring and the Bison opened a 31-0 lead before Coastal Carolina capped a 76-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run by Lorenzo Taliaferro. Keller's 48-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter was one shy of his career long and gave NDSU a 34-7 halftime lead.
Middle linebacker Carlton Littlejohn led the Bison defense with nine tackles and free safety Christian Dudzik had his first two-interception game with picks on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter - one near midfield and the other in the end zone for a touchback.
Taliaferro ran 11 times for 53 yards and quarterback Alex Ross went 13 of 26 passing for 185 yards. Receiver Matt Hazel caught eight passes for 91 yards including a twisting 20-yard touchdown reception midway through the third quarter that made it a 34-14 game.
NDSU advanced to the semifinal game against New Hampshire.
HOW DID NDSU DEFEAT NEW HAMPSHIRE IN THE SEMI-FINAL ROUND?
John Crockett rushed for a career-high 195 yards and Brock Jensen tied a school playoff record with three touchdown passes to register a 52-14 victory over New Hampshire.
An NDSU playoff record crowd of 18,694 watched the final home game for 24 seniors and 11th-year head coach Craig Bohl as the Bison locked up their third straight trip to the NCAA Division I football championship game.
NDSU's 52 points were a school record for the playoffs, surpassing the 51-11 win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the 1990 Division II title game when Chris Simdorn threw three touchdown passes for the Bison.
North Dakota State won its 23rd straight game overall, its 14th straight at home, and improved to 14-0 to tie a school record for victories in a single season. The Bison are one win shy of the longest winning streak in program history, a 24-game run from 1964-66.
New Hampshire (10-5) struck first and early. Steven Thames picked off Jensen on the third play of the game and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
The Bison scored on their fourth possession. Jensen connected on a 50-yard scoring strike down the middle of the field to Zach Vraa to tie the game 7-7, Adam Keller hit a 32-yard field goal to go ahead, and the Bison scored 52 unanswered points.
NDSU's Derrick Lang made his first career touchdown catch from seven yards out, Leevon Perry scored his first points on a seven-yard fumble recovery after a dropped snap, and Kevin Vaadeland caught a 20-yard touchdown pass over the middle to make it 31-7 before halftime.
Crockett carried 13 times and averaged 15.0 yards per carry, including a 24-yard run and season-long 40-yard burst to set up Lang's touchdown catch. Crockett went a career-long 71 yards on the first play after a Christian Dudzik interception to set up a 1-yard run by Jensen two plays later and the Bison led 38-7 early in the third quarter.
UNH, which entered the game averaging 450 yards of total offense, managed just 184 total yards, the fewest by a Bison opponent in the last six games. Quarterback Sean Goldrich was 13 of 26 passing for 117 yards. Leading rusher Nico Steriti, averaging 72.9 yards per game, got seven yards on six carries.
Linebacker Carlton Littlejohn had a 10 tackles and three pass breakups to lead the Bison defense and Bryan Shepherd added six tackles and a 36-yard interception return. AJ Van Voorhis tied a career-high with five tackles
The Bison advanced to the third straight national championship game which will be played Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas, against Towson.
WHAT IS THE PRIOR HISTORY OF POSTSEASON PLAY FOR NORTH DAKOTA STATE?
The Bison have made it to the Division I playoffs now four years in a row. NDSU won the national title the past two years and advanced to the quarterfinal round in 2010 before falling 38-31 in overtime to eventual national champion Eastern Washington. NDSU won two games against Robert Morris and Montana State prior to that loss. In total, NDSU is 12-1 in their brief Division I playoff history.
NDSU also has a storied Division II playoff history--making that division’s playoffs 17 different seasons from 1976 to 2000. NDSU also played in six bowl games prior to the D-II playoffs starting in 1973.
In total, NDSU has won nine national titles in 1965, 1968, 1969, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, and last two years of 2011 and 2012. NDSU also finished as the runner’s up in 1967, 1981 and 1984.
NDSU has a 30-12 record in the D-II playoffs and won five of their six bowl games.
Of the national championships during the D-II playoff era, NDSU went undefeated three times in 1986, 1988, and 1990 en route to those year’s national championships.
NDSU transitioned to Division I starting in the 2004 season and became postseason eligible in 2008.
READY FOR FRISCO
The Bison are an experienced team like they were a season ago, and has seemingly gotten better in the playoffs as seen above by the margin of victories. NDSU has 11 senior starters slated on the depth chart entering the championship game but a total of 24 that have been a part of the past two championships.
NDSU is only in its sixth year of being playoff and championship eligible so it is quite remarkable that the Bison are in a third straight national title game. But as can be seen from their storied history, making playoff runs and championship games is something that this program is known for. We shall see January 4th in Frisco if the Bison will hoist their third Division I trophy.