FRISCO, Texas — Easton Stick may not have taken home the Walter Payton Award on Friday night. But the North Dakota State senior quarterback and his Bison teammates completed a much more memorable coronation Saturday afternoon here in a place that’s now aptly referred to as “Fargo South”.
Every time North Dakota State needed a play – a simple third down or touchdown to cap a dominant drive or an NFL-caliber throw to seize the momentum or a string of conversions to seal a historic win — Stick proved why he is the greatest winner the Football Championship Subdivision has ever seen.
The NDSU senior quarterback scored two first half rushing touchdowns and threw two more touchdowns in less than a minute during a wild start to the second half.
The Omaha native engineered one crucial conversion after another to eat up the fourth quarter clock.
And fittingly, he capped his career with an exclamation point, ripping off a 46-yard touchdown run with one minute, 16 seconds left to play to stamp top-ranked North Dakota State’s 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington in front of a sellout crowd of mostly green and yellow at Toyota Stadium here on Saturday afternoon.
“There’s some crazy expectations at this program and we wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s unbelievable what’s been created and what’s been upheld. And, shoot, there’s 24 of us seniors and Coach (Chris Klieman), and sat together and knew what we were capable of,” Stick said. “And it hasn’t been done very often but we wanted to raise the bar and do it better than it’s ever been done. And we tried to do that and feels good to end it this way.”
The victory caps an undefeated 15-0 campaign for North Dakota State, boosting the Bison to their seventh FCS national title in eight years. NDSU passes former Division I-AA power Georgia Southern for the most titles in the history of the division founded in 1978.
Stick, a four-year starter in virtue of a wrist injury that cost current Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback Carson Wentz nine games during his senior year in 2015, passed former NDSU signal caller Brock Jensen as the FCS all-time in quarterback victories. He completed 13-of-19 passes for 198 yards and a pair of touchdown tosses to Darrius Shepherd, rushed for 121 more yards and won the 49th game in his illustrious career.
“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.
“It was a one-day-at-a-time and Coach talked about stacking good days on good days. We didn’t have very many bad days at all. That’s a credit to the senior class. It’s a credit to the coaching staff, but it’s also a credit to the underclassmen and that’s why this place is going to be special for a long time.”
Eastern Washington overcame a variety of obstacles, from four crucial penalties in the first half that killed one touchdown drive and caused the Eagles to settle for a senior Roldan Alcobendas’ 16th straight field goal on another to a pair of third quarter turnovers that helped the Bison sustain a two-score lead.
With less than 30 seconds to play in the first half trailing 17-3, holder and backup quarterback Gunner Talkington operated a fake field goal pitch to junior tight end Jayce Gilder, who stretched across the goal line to score a touchdown to cut the Bison lead to 17-10.
“Earlier in the week, we had drawn up that play based on how they played their field goal block and it was a play we knew we were going to execute and make happen,” said Gilder, who caught three passes for 37 yards. “When itw as finally called, I was excited because I knew I was going to get in the end-zone and I knew I had to get in the end-zone.”
Eastern sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere threw an interception on the second play of the second half only to watch EWU senior corner D’londo Tucker pick off Stick on the very next play. But Barriere appeared to hurt his throwing (right) hand right after and went to the sideline three plays into the ensuing drive, all handoffs.
Talkington, who entered the season as Eastern’s third-string quarterback before senior All-American Gage Gubrud went down with an injury, threw just 11 passes this season. On his lone snap under center Saturday, NDSU defensive end Stanley Jones hit Talkington, forcing a fumble he recovered.
Three plays later, Stick hit Shepherd for a 23-yard touchdown after using his legs to keep the play alive and lofting a perfectly thrown back-shoulder ball to his fellow senior. That touchdown pushed the margin to 24-10, NDSU.
The Eagles swung right back. On EWU’s very next play, senior Sam McPherson ripped off a 75-yard touchdown, the highlight of a day that saw him rush for 158 yards on 18 carries to boost his season total to 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But Stick would not be denied. Eastern Washington brought pressure, NDSU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham saw Shepherd isolated, the senior wide receiver pulled a slick double move and Stick threw a perfect ball for a 78-yard catch and run to again widely the gap to 14. Shepherd, who finished with five catches for 125 yards to earn Most Outstanding Player honors, gave the Bison a 31-17 lead with 10:44 left in the third quarter.
That’s how the third frame ended. When NDSU assumed possession with 13:31 left, the Bison’s bruising offensive line and a four-headed monster at running back that played without All-American senior Bruce Anderson Saturday had its way. North Dakota State earned 10:10 of its 40:05 of time of possession on that drive, converting six third downs along the way.
“It was tough to watch just seeing them do what they do,”said Barriere, who competed 13-of-25 passes for 198 yards and rushed nine times for 10 yards. “But we all believed in our defense and know they played their hearts out.
“It’s definitely a memorable moment just being out here in Frisco just doing the activities and just like the miracle lease of just seeing all that stuff just memories out taking down with me. But it hurts like losing, just especially how we lost.”
Winning national championships has become the norm for the Missouri Valley Football Conference powerhouse from Fargo. But a roster that features 24 seniors led by Stick and four-year starting safety Robbie Grimsley has been on a collective mission after losing in the semifinals of the 2016 playoffs, the only blemish on North Dakota State’s otherwise flawless resume.
The 2013 NDSU team went undefeated and won a third straight national title under Craig Bohl, prompting Bohl to leave Fargo, North Dakota to become the head coach at Wyoming. That is the only Bison team to go undefeated before the 2018 rendition, although NDSU’s 112-8 record since the beginning of 2011 is hardly anything to scoff at.
When fifth-year head coach Chris Klieman was hired at Kansas State last month, it added another element to an already historic scenario. On Saturday, North Dakota State executed the winning formula once again, jumping out to leads of 10-0 and 17-3 thanks to Stick’s rushing touchdowns, squashing Eastern Washington’s momentum with a pair of takeaways that led to a pair of touchdown throws by Stick to widen the gap early in the third quarter and erasing the fourth quarter clock with a signature 19-play, 88-yard drive that ate up more than 10 minutes.
The systematic and definitive drive of the fourth quarter ended in a missed field goal by Cam Pedersen. EWU responded with an 80-yard drive in 1:02 highlighted by a pair of darts thrown by s Barriere and capped by Barriere’s five-yard touchdown run.
That score was one of four Eastern Washington touchdowns that cut the North Dakota State advantage to seven points. Stick and the Bison responded in short order with a touchdown of their own every single time, including when Stick scored the 41st rushing touchdown of his stellar career on his final carry as a Bison.
“He was one of the best players in college football,” Klieman said. “And I thought he should have won the (Payton) award. But I’m not a voter in the award. But anybody that wins 49 times over a career is the best player in college football at the FCS level.”
As the sea of green and gold poured onto the field on a picturesque Texas day where temperatures flirted with 70 degrees, Eastern Washington’s players hugged the attendees adorn in red and black, many of the athletes with tears streaming down their faces.
Gilder stood in the mob by the Eastern Washington sideline staring at the stage as Klieman took the microphone and thanked the largely partisan crowd for helping him “celebrate my senior day with this great group of seniors.” The blank look on the face of the EWU junior tight end summed up the disappointment for a collection of Eagles led by 27 seniors that fell short in their bid for the second national title in school history.
“This Eastern team, we are going to be back here next year,” Gilder said. “We have a bunch of fighters and we are going to come back and we are going to go even harder than we did last off-season because we know what it takes to get to the national championship. This will motivate a lot of guys.”
Gilder, a former walk-on tight end from Corvallis, Montana provided a spark that kept the Eagles in the game when he scored before halftime. That was hardly any solace as he felt watching NDSU celebrate.
“I’m never going to get over this feeling,” Gilder said. “I will always have this feeling in my gut. It really sucks. It really does. But I’m going to remember this and we are going to work harder than we ever have in our entire lives. But this is a terrible feeling right now.”
Klieman has essentially had two jobs over the last month, helping both NDSU and Kansas State finish their early signing period recruiting classes while helping the Bison navigate another four-game postseason winning streak to claim yet another trophy.
As Stick summed up his time at North Dakota State during the postgame press conference, Klieman was visibly emotional, wiping tears from his eyes. His move to Manhattan, Kansas comes with a $2.3 million annual salary and a guaranteed $300,000 annual bonus.
But no amount of money can match the memories of the most dominant run ever assembled by a small-school college football team. And Klieman, who played for NDSU’s first national championship winning coach Darrell Mudra when Mudra was at Northern Iowa, knows he’ll never be able to replicate the feelings he had Saturday as his team helped him ride off into the sunset wearing a national championship hat one last time.
“I know those Georgia Southern teams well. They were a dynasty for a number of years. And this has been an absolute dynasty,” said Klieman, who went 69-6 at NDSU. “And there’s no ifs, ands or buts. I think it’s the greatest run in college football. It’s so cool I’ve been a part of it and been part of the system as a coordinator and head coach.
“To go 15-0, win a national championship, it doesn’t end any better than that. The story is complete.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.