North Dakota State has proven over the years that it's not afraid to play anybody.
The two-time defending national champions in the Football Championship Subdivision have knocked off Colorado State from the Mountain West, Minnesota from the Big Ten and Kansas from the Big 12 over the last few years, each time planting a flag for smaller schools everywhere.
The Bison left their biggest mark yet on the college football landscape Friday night with the win over defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.
Brock Jensen backed into the end zone from a yard out with 28 seconds left to finish off a frantic fourth-quarter rally and lift the Bison over the Wildcats, 24-21.
"So much determination and resolve when we were down, and many, many teams have come in and Kansas State's jumped up and had folded," Bison coach Craig Bohl said. "Our guys did not do that. I thought our assistant coaches made some really excellent adjustments when we needed to."
The Bison trailed 21-17 when they got the ball back with about 9 minutes left in the game. But behind the unflappable poise of Jensen, their senior quarterback, they put together a rambling 18-play drive that covered 80 yards — and included four third-down conversions — for the go-ahead score.
"It was just one of those moments where we had to gut it out," said Jensen, who also threw for 165 yards and two scores. "That was the most gutty performance I've seen in my entire life."
Turns out that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had a similar opinion.
"They play very, very hard," he said. "They're a tough football team. They played harder than we did, they were tougher than we were, they were better coached than we were."
Much of the credit for that goes to Bohl, the longtime assistant coach at Nebraska who has led the Bison to back-to-back FCS national championships. The defensive guru matched wits with Snyder on an annual basis during the early years of the Big 12, often coming out on top.
"They are a tremendous program," Bohl said, "so for us it's a great win."
Jake Waters helped the Wildcats build a 21-7 lead by the third quarter before everything fell apart. He wound up throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns but also was picked off twice, the second on a desperation heave after the Bison had taken the lead.
That sealed the biggest win in North Dakota State history.
When the final gun sounded, the Bison raced to midfield to celebrate, and then headed to the corner of the end zone that was painted yellow by their fans — a strong contingent in the crowd of 53,351, the second-largest ever to see a game at Kansas State.
"We've had a lot of these types of wins," Bohl said, "but never over a program like this."
Sam Ojuri had 10 carries for 127 yards, and John Crockett also ran for 50 yards for the Bison. Ryan Smith caught eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.
It was a glum way for the Wildcats to wrap up a festive day on campus.
The school dedicated a $90 million renovation to the west side of its stadium in a ceremony attended by Gov. Sam Brownback and Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. Along with a ribbon-cutting, the school also unveiled an 8-foot bronze statue of its beloved coach.
Snyder even made the rare decision to leave his team on game day for a few hours to attend the ceremony, but joked that if the Wildcats stumbled "it's all going to be on my shoulders."
Then again, perhaps the 73-year-old Snyder wasn't joking at all.
Kansas State struggled early on with Waters taking over for departed Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein under center. The Bison took advantage of the lull — and a 49-yard punt return by Christian Dudzik — to take a 7-0 lead on Jensen's 5-yard pass to Smith late in the first quarter.
The Wildcats finally got on the board when Waters completed four straight passes, capped by a 45-yard touchdown toss to Thompson early in the second quarter. But both teams squandered chances to seize a halftime lead — Waters was picked off deep in his own territory, only for the Kevin Vaadeland to drop a TD catch and Adam Keller to clang a field-goal attempt off the left upright.
Kansas State threatened to break the game open in the third quarter.
Waters followed a couple short completions with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Lockett, who had run right past Williams to get open. On the ensuing series, backup QB Daniel Sams made his season debut on third-and-3 at the Bison 17 and ran almost untouched for a touchdown that made it 21-7.
North Dakota State was on the ropes when Jensen engineered a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that he capped with a 9-yard pass to Vaadeland. The Bison twice converted short third downs.
Keller atoned for his miss by hitting from 41 yards to make it 21-17 after three quarters.
The Wildcats were still clinging to that lead when North Dakota State got the ball back in the fourth quarter. Jensen methodically led the Bison downfield, picking up a first down at every key juncture, and then used his legs to carry them into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"Any time you have the lead and you let it go to a good team, it's upsetting," Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker said. "You have to give them credit. They played well. Even when they were down they kept playing, and tonight we came up short."