Frisco, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Having watched their teammates win the NCAA Division I Football Championship three years ago while they were freshman redshirts, Carson Wentz and Joe Haeg sensed something after the 2011 season.
Wentz, now NDSU's starting quarterback, and Haeg, the team's All-American left tackle, stood outside their freshman dormitory on campus and agreed that the Bison's lone loss to Youngstown State during the regular season might have been the best thing to happen to their team.
Without it, the two reasoned, the Bison could have had an arrogance about themselves heading into the playoffs, and the start of their three straight national titles may never have happened that season.
Fast forward to North Dakota State's opportunity on Saturday to become the first program to win a fourth straight FCS title and the Bison still appear to be a team that is not getting ahead of itself. They talk as though they are as grounded as their vaunted power run game, and first-year head coach Chris Klieman even pointed out Friday how the lone regular-season loss to Northern Iowa helped his players relax from the burden of carrying an FCS-record 33- game winning streak.
Illinois State, the team standing in between NDSU and history, is showing respect for a fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference champion as well. But the Redbirds, all new to championship week, have to prove they won't be swallowed up by the national stage, a more relaxed opponent and the NDSU dynasty, although the Bison players were hesitant to label themselves as that during a final news conference on the eve of the championship game.
"We're just here to win this one," said senior defensive end Kyle Emanuel, who's played a part in the three-peat.
"You threw out the word invincibility," Wentz said in answering a reporter's question. "That's a terrible word to think for your team. It just leads to destruction if you ask me. Our mind-set every week is to go 1-0."
FCS championship week has the tendency to feel about anything but football with the anticipation during a three-week buildup from the national semifinals having long been tiresome and the travel to Frisco followed by various media sessions and off-the-field functions cutting into game preparation.
North Dakota State players carried more relaxed looks throughout the day than the Redbirds, even posing with the championship trophy at a high noon banquet for both teams, with their team helmet showing in photos but the Illinois State helmet conveniently hidden behind the many hulking linemen.
Indeed both teams were longing for kickoff Saturday, but perhaps more so the Redbirds who have played in NDSU's shadow despite tying for the Missouri Valley title. NDSU is 14-1 and Illinois State 13-1 after each went 7-1 yet missed playing the other in the conference schedule.
"Well, it's been a crazy kind of 48 hours since we've gotten in," Illinois State All-American long snapper Chris Highland said, "but we're done with most of the mandatory team functions. Now it's just time to play football. We're kind of into our regular Friday schedule that we've had all throughout the season. Now we're just focused on one thing and that is North Dakota State.
"There's definitely a lot of emotion coming into this the day before the game," echoed strong safety Dontae McCoy, a fellow senior. "It feels real good to be in this position, to see all the hard work that we put in over the offseason and the winter workouts and all that, to be in the final game to try to win the national championship."
Illinois State will have more fans at Toyota Stadium than what seemed to be a 90-10 split between North Dakota State and Towson in last year's title game rout. But Frisco is still painted yellow and green this week and the crowd remains an advantage for the Bison.
In fact, at practice on Friday, the Bison were met by about 150 former players who showed up to provide encouraging words and support.
"Even just seeing a couple of your friends that you haven't seen in a while that you played with last year and you don't see every week," All-American safety Colten Heagle said. "Playing and being with guys pretty much 360 days out of the year every day and then not seeing them at all is tough. I was able to speak to some of them and just thank them for the foundation they've laid and the tradition that we've been able to follow here at NDSU. I said to them there is no way we could have had the success today that we've had without them in the '60s, and '70s, '80s, and '90s. So it's honestly one of my favorite parts about this whole trip."
Many of the key North Dakota State players have likely made more trips to Frisco in the last four years than to their favorite family vacation spots. The Bison are determined to keep winning all in the family on Saturday.