North Dakota State earned its fourth consecutive FCS Championship with a trilling 29-27 victory over Illinois State on Saturday. The winning touchdown, a Carson Wentz run, came with just 37 seconds left on the clock.
The title game capped a terrific campaign for the Missouri Valley Football Conference. It became the first FCS conference to send two teams to the final. The Bison and Redbirds hadn't faced off during the regular season due to a rotation where every team misses one conference opponent each year.
Those factors combined to create a unique championship atmosphere. Here's how the game played out from Frisco, Texas' Toyota Stadium:
|FCS Championship Game: North Dakota State vs. Illinois State|
One thing North Dakota State has been able to do consistently during its run of dominance is protect the football. Avoiding mistakes is essential once a team reaches the one-and-done playoffs, and no team at the FCS level elevates its game better in those situations.
The Sports Network passed along comments from Illinois State head coach Brock Spack, who knew the Bison's steady play was a hurdle his team had to overcome.
It's invaluable. Football is a very, very cerebral game.
Obviously, they're a very talented team. They wouldn't win three national titles in a row or be here four years if they didn't have talent. But they're very well coached, very disciplined and, obviously, very smart.
Sure enough, his squad was able to come up with a key play on the first drive.
NDSU took the opening kickoff and was marching down the field. On second and long in Redbirds territory, Wentz escaped the pocket and made a nice run that was going to give the Bison a first down before Alex Donnelly delivered a punishing hit that forced a fumble.
Illinois State highlighted the early turning point:
ISU didn't score on the ensuing drive, but it was able to flip the field position and pin the Bison deep in there own territory. The Redbirds were able to get a quick stop and got the ball back inside the opposing 40.
Five plays later they opened the scoring with a 13-yard hookup between Tre Roberson and Jon-Marc Anderson for the touchdown.
Kurt Pegler of WMBD noted the nice effort by Roberson to keep the play alive long enough for Anderson to run open in the end zone:
North Dakota State responded in the way you'd expect from a team with so much championship experience. It didn't panic, stuck with the game plan and was able to use its advantage up front to put together a pair of back-to-back scoring drives.
The first stalled out in the red zone, leading to a 41-yard field goal by Adam Keller. The second covered 84 yards with 11 plays and ate up more than five minutes of clock. After a fourth-down conversion to keep the drive alive, Wentz found Luke Albers on an easy pitch and catch for the score.
Dom Izzo of WDAY points out it was just the latest key play in a breakout campaign for the tight end:
The score also sent the Bison into the locker room with a 10-7 halftime edge.
They opened the second half by catching a break. Illinois State muffed the kickoff and Chris Board jumped on the loose ball to give NDSU terrific field position. The Redbirds' defense came up big to hold them to three, though.
Keller's second field goal of the game was notable for more than stretching the lead. Ryan Perreault of NDSU Football noted it added to his record-breaking season by setting the new FCS mark:
It looked like the Bison were getting ready to runaway with the game after John Crockett scored for seven yards out on their next drive. But ISU was able to respond.
The Redbirds were able to find some holes in the North Dakota State secondary. Roberson completed throws of 14 yards to Cameron Meredith and 21 yards to Lechein Neblett before connecting with James O'Shaughnessy, who broke a couple tackles en route to a 41-yard touchdown.
Emory Hunt of Football Gameplan applauded the effort:
After the Bison stretched the lead back out to nine with Keller's third field goal, the Redbirds put together another impressive drive. This one used just six plays to travel more than 80 yards, but the result was exactly the same.
O'Shaughnessy from Roberson for the score to bring them back within two at 23-21. Dr. Saturday noted the impressive day for the big target:
A memorable sequence followed.
Illinois State finally got the defensive stop it needed, stopping NDSU after it had moved past midfield. Then Roberson took care of the rest, tossing a couple quick completions before keeping the ball on the option and darting 58 yards to give the Redbirds the lead.
ESPN College Football highlighted the monster play:
But it wasn't enough. North Dakota State drove right back down the field thanks to a trio of throws from Wentz to RJ Urzendowski that covered 78 yards. Wentz finished the drive by scampering in from five yards out to grab the lead back.
JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago spotlighted the second lead change in quick succession:
There was no further magic for ISU. Roberson was intercepted at midfield and NDSU ran out the clock for the win. FCS Football provided the result:
North Dakota State will undergo further changes as it sends off a senior class that knew of nothing but winning titles. The program's track record suggests it will make a smooth transition. Illinois State also has a strong foundation in place as it begins looking toward next season.
As for college football as a whole, the focus now shifts to Monday night's National Championship Game between Oregon and Ohio State. Just like the FCS title game, it should be a tightly contested affair that goes right down to the wire.