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 national championship season last year, I felt the Bison would again make the postseason as MVFC champions after they won their first Division I title in 2011.
The preseason poll by the coaches, media, and sports information directors within the MVFC also picked NDSU on top ahead of 2011 co-champion Northern Iowa. NDSU was ranked 2nd nationally in the consolidated polls.
How did the Bison finish 10-1 within the 2012 regular season?
The highlights of the regular season had to be their win over Football Bowl Subdivision Colorado State and a road win over preseason second favorite Northern Iowa on the road.
NDSU defeated the FBS Rams 22-7 in a game that showed early on that the Bison had the potential to be one of the top FCS schools again this year.
NDSU defeated traditionally tough Youngstown State with a 48-7 win, defeated 2010 MVFC champion Northern Iowa 33-21, and suffered a road loss at then playoff hopeful Indiana State by a score of 17-14 later in the season. The Bison finished in the top ranking of the Gridiron Power Index (GPI) which they lead all season.
A mid-season loss at home to Indiana State by a score of 17-14 may have propelled the team to finish the way they did with five straight wins including fellow MVFC playoff teams South Dakota State and Illinois State.
The strong finish bolted the Bison to the top playoff seed meaning all playoff games would be played inside their Fargodome.
The Bison used a strong defense led by first team All-MVFC performers in junior cornerback Marcus Williams and junior linebacker Grant Olson on the best defense in most statistical categories this year.
The Bison also had second-team All-MVFC performers on the line in Cole Jirik and Leevon Perry.
Williams was not only an All-MVFC selection but also named as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. 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.
Jirik leads the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Perry, who is now out for the season with an injury, helped the team by plugging up the middle and also has six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
The offense was headed by All-MVFC offensive linemen in Joe Lund and Billy Turner. The two headed an offensive line that opened holes for a run-orientated West Coast offense.
Junior quarterback Brock Jensen ran the offense and utilizing running backs junior Sam Ojuri and sophomore John Crockett. But Jensen also used junior wide receiver Ryan Smith 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.
How did North Dakota State win its opening round playoff game?
Brock Jensen accounted for three touchdowns and North Dakota State clamped down on the leading rusher in the division to defeat South Dakota State 28-3 in the second round (NDSU’s first playoff game) of the playoffs.
The defending champions spotted the Jackrabbits a field goal late in the first quarter and then dominated the final three frames. The Bison held Zach Zenner to 46 yards rushing on 15 carries, more than 120 yards below his FCS-leading average.
The win came three weeks after NDSU held off the Jacks 20-17 in a regular-season matchup.
Jensen threw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Garrett Bruhn, who had not played since Oct. 6 because of a high ankle sprain. Bruhn had one catch for 23 yards this season and only one touchdown in his career before hauling in passes of 12 and 9 yards from Jensen.
The Bison added a trick play for good measure when diminutive wide receiver Ryan Smith took a handoff from Jensen, took cover behind one of his offensive linemen and scampered 32 yards untouched on an end around in the second quarter. Jensen added another score on the ground.
North Dakota State moved on to host Wofford in a quarterfinal playoff matchup.
How did the Bison beat Wofford in the quarterfinal round?
Linebacker Grant Olson set a Bison school record with 29 tackles and North Dakota State rode its top-rated defense in a defensive struggle of a 14-7 victory over Wofford in the quarterfinals.
The Bison forced two turnovers, blocked a field goal and did not allow an offensive touchdown. They withstood two fourth-quarter drives by the Terriers, including one that ended on downs at the Bison 5 with less than 4 minutes left.
Olson broke the previous record of 26 tackles set by NDSU safety Ken Clark in 1989.
Wofford finished with a 326-262 edge in yards of total offense.
The Bison scored on two long drives in the first half, including a go-ahead 10-play, 97-yard march capped by a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jensen to wide receiver Zach Vraa just over a minute before halftime, which would be the final scoring of the game.
NDSU also scored on the first possession of the game, going 75 yards in 10 plays before Sam Ojuri scored on a 1-yard run. Ojuri led the Bison in rushing with 72 yards.
Wofford was led by fullback Eric Breitenstein, who came into the contest as the second rusher in the nation. He ran for 135 yards on 24 carries and became the first player to top 100 yards on the ground against NDSU.
The Terriers scored its only touchdown on a 35-yard interception return by Blake Wylie in the second quarter of a Jensen pass. This score tied the game at 7-7.
Wofford drove inside the Bison 10 twice in the fourth quarter. The first drive ended when NDSU’s Anthony LaVoy, a backup defensive lineman who started the season as an offensive lineman, blocked a 26-yard field goal by Kasey Redfern with 9 minutes remaining.
The second Terrier drive stalled 5 minutes later at the NDSU 5 when Donovan Johnson was tackled by Olson a yard short of a first down. Wofford had one more possession but could not move the ball from its own 42 with 49 seconds left and no timeouts.
NDSU advanced to the semifinal game against Georgia Southern.
How did NDSU defeat Georgia Southern in the semi-final round?
Brock Jensen scored on a 5-yard quarterback draw on fourth down with 3 minutes left to rally North Dakota State to a 23-20 victory over Georgia Southern in a rematch of the two team’s semi-final match-up from a year ago.
Jensen's run came on a fourth-and-3 play and it followed three timeouts, the first one by NDSU and the last two by Georgia Southern.
Jensen's run capped a 59-yard drive that was aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Eagles. The drive started at the Bison 41 after a 15-yard penalty on Georgia Southern for a late hit.
The Bison survived a furious rally when Carlton Littlejohn blocked a 50-yard field-goal attempt with 34 seconds left by Drew Ruggles, who was recently recruited off the Georgia Southern soccer team.
Eagle Quarterback Jerick McKinnon rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown for Georgia Southern. He scored on a 25-yard run late in the third quarter to give the Eagles a 20-16 lead after the Bison's Jordan Champion roughed the punter in the Eagles end zone to extend the GSU drive.
McKinnon's touchdown followed a 53-yard touchdown run by NDSU's Sam Ojuri, who scored two plays after Christian Dudzik forced McKinnon to fumble and Grant Olson recovered at the Bison 41.
Ojuri rushed for 71 yards for North Dakota State. Jensen added 58 yards and John Crockett 55 yards rushing for the Bison.
Georgia Southern outgained NDSU 430-277 in total yardage. Dominique Swope added 78 yards rushing for the Eagles.
The Bison advanced to the championship game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, against the familiar foe of Sam Houston State in Frisco next week.
What is the prior history of postseason play for North Dakota State?
The Bison have made it to the FCS playoffs now three years in a row. NDSU won the national title last year 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 9-1 in their brief Division I playoff history.
But 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 year, 2011. 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, like their opponent of Sam Houston State, are again a relatively young team like they were a season ago, has gelled after a similar run in the playoffs a season ago. NDSU has just four senior starters on their team this year and underclassmen play key roles as I mentioned above.
NDSU is only in its fifth year of being playoff and championship eligible so it is quite remarkable that the Bison are in a second 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 5th in Frisco if the Bison will hoist their second Division I trophy.