FRISCO, Texas — If there was a poster child for players who love competing in front of the home crowd, Marcus Williams may be it.
The cornerback for North Dakota State returned to his native Minnesota in Week 3 of the Bisons’ season and lit up the hometown Gophers. He had two of his team season-high seven interceptions as NDSU ran to a 37-24 road victory against the BCS Gophers.
Oh, and both of those INTs? Yeah, he returned them for touchdowns, two of his four non-offensive scores this season.
Originally recruited by ACC schools as a point guard — “He wasn’t a good enough shooter, but he could cover. One of the scouts told me that, and I said, ‘Well, that sounds like a cover corner,’” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said — Williams has dominated the position and helped the Bison rank first nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 13.2 points per game. The Bison are also in the top 25 in turnover margin (5th), rushing defense (19th), sacks (19th), pass efficiency defense (24th) and total defense (24th).
Along the way, Williams has had at least one pass defended in 23 of 28 career games. And he’s one interception shy of the North Dakota State single-season record. That’s a mark set by Frank Esposito, who had eight picks over half a century ago in 1953.
“Marcus has come in and he’s really improved as a player each year. He’s still a young player, but he’s been an excellent team player and a dynamic football player,” Bohl added, who coached more than a few soon-to-be NFL players when he was an assistant and defensive coordinator at Nebraska. “That’s given us a dimension we’ve not had and he’s right in line with those guys we had at Nebraska that played in the NFL.”
Williams’ playmaking ability stands out as he provides a unique scoring threat despite never touching the field on offense.
“I shake my head at some of the things I’ve seen [Williams do],” Bohl said. “That Minnesota game, that’s a big-time venue. He controlled the football game. That’s hard to do from the cornerback position.”
It was special for Williams too as he had plenty of family and friends in the stands. Any time an FCS school can go on the road and knock off a BCS team, it adds to the optimism of what the squad can accomplish during the season.
Williams said the team knew in the offseason it had a chance to do something special. The game against the Gophers just gave concrete proof about what it could accomplish if everyone bought in and was on the same page.
But he’s not shy when it comes to keeping that personal highlight in perspective.
“This means a lot more to me,” Williams said of Saturday’s FCS title game against Sam Houston State. “Like coach Bohl said, that Minnesota game was for show, but the rest of the games are for the dough.
“We had that as our motto for the whole season going on from there. The Minnesota game was big, but there’s nothing bigger than the national championship game and getting that ring on our finger.”
Known this season for its defense, the Bison have a chance for that defining moment behind players like Williams and defensive end Coulter Boyer, who leads the squad with 12.0 TFLs and 9.0 sacks.
It’ll be their task to stop an explosive Sam Houston State offense that has the ability to take it to the end zone on any offensive snap. The Bearkats lead the country in scoring, averaging 39.1 points per game, making for an offense-defense matchup that the fans are anxious to witness.
And there will be plenty of them wearing gold and green in FC Dallas Stadium on Saturday.
A 20-plus-hour drive won’t stop the Bison fans. NDSU sold out of its 4,000 tickets in short order, and administrators feel they could have sold another 6,000. Many probably picked up seats on the secondary market, although it’s a hard ticket to find as the game is a sellout in the 20,086-seat stadium.
Unknown to most of the country, the Bison faithful are a well-traveled and enthusiastic bunch, something that doesn’t get lost on the players.
“North Dakota isn’t blessed with a professional football team or anything like that, so Bison football is pretty big in Fargo, and everyone likes to go to the games on the weekend,” Boyer said. “It’s been great to take the team from a couple years ago when we were 3-8, then we go 9-5 and then here we are in the national championship two years later. It feels good.”
Boyer is right on the money, guard Austin Richards says. And he’d know. Born and raised in North Dakota, he’s one of only five homegrown starters on the squad, and he said the community support has always been there, but it’s grown this season.
“For our fans, it’s a destination game,” Richards said of the title contest. “And we travel pretty well as a university to any type of big event like this. When our basketball team was in the tournament a few years ago, a lot of people went down to that game. I think traditionally we’ve traveled very well as a university and I think a lot of fans will show up for this.”
Like any good CEO, Bohl has been making the hard sell about the high level of play his squad has reached, although it’s come easier this year. He talked with reporters a week ago about FCS football being an “emerging product” and how it’s gaining traction for not only the quality of play but the way the format works out.
“I think this game is an exclamation point,” Bohl said. “This game sold out right away. There’s much more national media focusing on it than what I had thought before. It’s really good football and I think more and more people across the country are starting to recognize it and I also think more and more people are saying, this format works and let’s look at this and see how this is coming about.
“I think it’s a great product with really good football players and in many ways, it’s football how it’s meant to be played.”
With special playmakers like Williams on the Bisons’ roster, it’s hard to argue with him.
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