Frisco, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The North Dakota State football dynasty was thought by many to be ending this season - that the Bison would be unable to roll over opponents anymore after the departure of a dominant senior class and their head coach following last season.
What might have been overlooked is the Bison didn't need to just pound opponents into submission, they could have a new winning formula of dramatic finishes.
The Bison completed a postseason of heart-stopping wins Saturday with an unprecedented fourth consecutive FCS national championship, rallying past Illinois State, 29-27, on quarterback Carson Wentz's 5-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds remaining as 20,918 watched in near disbelief at Toyota Stadium.
"What great resolve by our guys," first-year coach Chris Klieman said afterward. "That's a great football team that we were able to beat. A lot of respect for Coach (Brock) Spack and Illinois State. They've got an unbelievable program and great players. We just made one more play, really, because it was a game of making plays, and we were fortunate enough to make one more play, and our hats off to those guys."
Wentz, a redshirt junior, had served an apprenticeship under quarterback Brock Jensen in the first three title seasons. In following Jensen as the championship game's most outstanding player, Wentz finished with 324 total yards (237 passing, 87 rushing) and both a touchdown run and pass, and the Bison (15-1) gained more than just bragging rights from fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champion Illinois State in the first national title game that matched two teams from the same FCS conference.
It seemed only a punch in the face would end NDSU's historic run and Illinois State nearly had it when transfer quarterback Tre Roberson ran for a 58-yard touchdown with 1:38 remaining to give the Redbirds (13-2) a 27-23 lead. He had a similar scoring run late in a national semifinal at New Hampshire, and it was a knockout blow.
But when a field goal wasn't going to be enough for NDSU, the Bison dug for more resilience from their championship DNA. Wentz completed three passes to freshman wide receiver RJ Urzendowski on the final drive, including a 33-yarder to the Illinois State 5 as Redbirds safety DraShane Glass slipped to the turf with 50 seconds left.
Following an NDSU timeout, the 6-foot-6 Wentz took a snap out of the shotgun, followed his left tackle and banged off a defender while lumbering into the Illinois State end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
"Yeah, we actually called two plays right away," Wentz said about the discussion during the timeout, "and something that I love about Coach (Tim) Polasek (the offensive coordinator) is right when that timeout had been called, I came over and I got on the headset and we started talking about what play to call, and he definitely took my input there, and it was just -- a relationship like that is so nice and so special for the coach to have confidence in me to kind of almost choose what play -- at least voice my input. We called both plays there and we were going to get on the ball if I didn't get in and run the other play, so fortunately we got in the first one."
Keller had converted 117 straight extra points to that moment, but this one was blocked to keep NDSU's lead at 29-27 and vulnerable to a field goal. But on Illinois State's desperate final drive, a Roberson pass to tight end James O'Shaughnessy bounded into the hands of Bison senior linebacker Esley Thornton at his team's 45, and the interception with 8 seconds left basically ended the game and kept the dynasty going.
"With our guys, you never saw any doubt in their mind," Klieman said. You never saw panic in their eyes. We've obviously been in this situation before, even in the playoffs, and our guys just know that, hey, it's our time. When you have the success that we've had over the past four years now, guys just know how to win, and when you know how to win, you just always feel you have that chance if you can get that last possession."
Incredibly, most members of the NDSU senior class finished their careers with more national titles than defeats as the Bison have gone a combined 58-3 over the last four years - the first three titles under former coach Craig Bohl. But Illinois State, fifth-seeded in the playoffs and making its first national championship game appearance, made the second-seeded Bison work to keep their historic run going.
"I'll try to put it into words the best I can," said senior linebacker Carlton Littlejohn. "It's an amazing accomplishment. You never dream of coming to college and winning four straight national championships, only losing three games. That's something you only dream about, something that happens in video games or something like that. But to experience it right now, it's unbelievable."
Illinois State led 7-3 after the first quarter and didn't go away after the Bison scored 17 unanswered points to grab a 20-7 advantage late in the third quarter. O'Shaughnessy, the Redbirds' big-statured, big-play tight end, sandwiched 41-and 3-yard touchdown receptions from Roberson around Adam Keller's third field goal of the game, and the Redbirds found themselves down only 23-21 with 8:05 left to play.
When they got the ball again, Roberson, who was at Indiana University while NDSU won its first three titles, ran the perfect delayed draw, as he often does, by faking a handoff to running back Marshaun Coprich, and racing near his team's sideline for his 58-yard touchdown.
NDSU was penalized for a false start before the first play of its ensuing drive, but Wentz quickly provided the composure by completing two straight passes to Urzendowski. The Bison went 78 yards on six plays in 1 minute, 1 second, rallying the way they did in the fourth quarter against South Dakota State in the second round of the playoffs and then against Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals.
Different script but same championship result for NDSU much to Illinois State's dismay.
"It was a tremendous football game played by two very good teams," Spack said, "and I felt that - I just told our players after the game that you didn't lose the game, you just ran out of time, just one of those scenarios."
NDSU built its 20-3 lead as Keller sandwiched two 41-yard field goals around Wentz's 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Luke Albers. John Crockett then scored on a 7-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter.
Wentz was 15-for-22 for 232 yards and rushed for 87 yards on 16 carries. Urzendowski finished with 100 yards on five receptions, while Crockett gained 74 yards on 22 carries, finishing a mere six yards below 2,000 for the season.
Keller's 11-point, three-field goal game gave him FCS single-season records of 146 points and 29 field goals.
Roberson was only 11-for-23 for 157 yards, but three passes went for touchdowns, including a 13-yarder to freshman wide receiver Jon-Marc Anderson to open the scoring in the first quarter. Coprich carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards to go over 100 yards for the 14th time in 15 games and finish the season with an FCS-high 2,274 yards.
But while the Missouri Valley got the de facto conference championship game that it wanted, only North Dakota State left with an even bigger prize - a fourth straight national championship.