– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
FRISCO, Texas — Gathered around his 24 seniors at a team dinner in Fargo last July, North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman did more than just lay out his expectations for what all of them hoped would become yet another special football season for the Bison in 2018. There was a tacit understanding, emanating from the coach and shared by each player present, that the end of the first Saturday of January would confirm their squad as one without an equal in college football history.
Having already left little doubt that their championship run put them amongst the greats in the history of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Bison, at least statistically, cemented themselves as the greatest football program in the division by winning a record seventh national championship on Saturday. Quarterback Easton Stick accounted for all five of the Bison’s touchdowns — two passing and three more on the ground — as top-seeded North Dakota State defeated No. 3 Eastern Washington 38-24 in the championship game at Toyota Stadium, completing a perfect 15-0 season and bringing the FCS trophy back to Fargo for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.
The Bison’s seventh title broke a tie with Georgia Southern atop the list of teams with the most FCS national championships.
The continuation of the Bison’s dominance today also marked the last game at North Dakota State for Klieman, who was named head coach at Kansas State last month. But on that summer day before officially embarking on what would end up being his last go-round leading the Bison, he and his seniors gathered to make sure they were in sync with the prevailing message after the get-together, that this season was about much more than winning a championship. It was about becoming the sport’s new gold standard.
“We wanted to be perfect this year, Klieman said, “We knew it was going to be hard, but if we attacked every day and held each other to a high standard, we could do that.”
Stick, one of those 24 seniors, accounted for 319 total yards while rushing for two first-half touchdowns, the second coming on a four-yard run to the left pylon for a 17-3 lead midway through the second quarter. In a span of 68 seconds early in the third quarter, Stick threw his two touchdown passes — both to the game’s Most Outstanding Player, senior wide receiver Darius Shepherd. The second of those scoring passes, a bomb down the sideline, went for 78 yards and gave the Bison a 31-17 lead as the play turned out to be the game-winning score.
The win today was Stick’s 49th career victory, breaking a tie with former Bison quarterback Brock Jensen for most wins as a starting quarterback with an FCS team. He completes his NDSU career with a 49-3 record — not an entirely impeccable record, like his team’s 2018-19 season, but pretty darn close.
“We sat down as seniors with Coach in July and said, ‘Why can’t we be the greatest ever? Why can’t we be perfect?,'” Stick said. “I’m not saying we’re the greatest ever, but we worked and we tried to put ourselves in this position. And to go 15-0 and win another national championship is really hard to do.”
Though North Dakota State never trailed in the game, Eastern Washington pulled to within one possession of the Bison on four separate occasions after falling behind 10-0 after the first quarter. Quarterback Eric Barriere, who took over the starting job in October after two-time Walter Payton Award finalist Gage Gubrud suffered a season-ending toe injury, scored on a 5-yard run with 2:19 remaining in the game to cut North Dakota State’s lead to 31-24. The Bison recovered the ensuing onside kick and, three plays later, Stick faked a handoff and ran off right tackle for a 46-yard touchdown to seal the victory.
“It wasn’t a fantastic 60 minutes. But I thought, like I said, we more than held our own for a lengthy period of time,” said Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best. “We came in aggressively. We played aggressive. We coached aggressive. And we’ll leave here aggressive.”
Running back Sam McPherson rushed for 158 yards on just 18 carries for Eastern Washington, including a 75-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to cut North Dakota State’s lead to 24-17. The Eagles intercepted Stick twice in the third quarter, but were not able to convert those turnovers into points on the ensuing drives. Instead, the Bison were able to turn over the Eagles just four plays after Stick’s first interception, as senior defensive end Stanley Jones strip-sacked backup quarterback Gunner Talkington — who threw a 2-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter on a fake field goal attempt — and recovered the fumble at the Eagles’ 25-yard line.
Three plays later, Stick threw his first touchdown, a 23-yard pass to Shepherd for a 24-10 lead.
“We’re competitors. We earned the right to play in this game, too,” Best said. “And I’m excited to protect those players. They earned this opportunity. And we fell short. Very close but short.”
The Bison were able to control the game because they controlled the clock, possessing the ball for just over 40 minutes (40:05) as they rushed for 290 yards.
“The time of possession was huge,” Kleiman said.
The majority of the 17,902 fans at Toyota Stadium were clad in green and yellow, most of them now used to making the 1,000-mile journey from the Fargo Plains to just outside of Dallas to begin the new year and witness their Bison take their place as the best team in the FCS at the end of the season.
To end this particular season, however, the Bison can be confident in claiming that they are the best football team to ever reign in Division I.
“This has been an absolute dynasty,” Klieman said. “And there’s no ifs, ands or buts. I think it’s the greatest run in college football.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday afternoon’s game, with all photos taken by Capture Photography founder and Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the gallery. There are 56 pictures in total.