FRISCO, Texas -- When Mike Hardie first showed up in Fargo to play for North Dakota State, he was the only defensive end in his recruiting class.
Then Kyle Emanuel, a classmate who came in as a linebacker, switched positions. The two freshmen defensive ends each redshirted their first season, which was the start of a friendship that has evolved to a state where teammates call them a “married couple” because of how much they are together -- and how much they bicker. They are roommates, and they always sit together on the plane to road games, though they don't have to fight for the seats anymore.
“Whoever is feeling down, the other brings him through,” Hardie said. “We lean on each other.”The two now have a chance to conclude their career the same way each of their first three seasons ended: lifting the national championship trophy in Frisco. North Dakota State takes on Missouri Valley Conference foe Illinois State at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday for the national title.
Holding down the ends of the Bison defensive line, Emanuel and Hardie have been at each other’s side the whole way for five years, even though the paths haven’t necessarily been the same. Emanuel has gained national recognition for his defensive dominance, while Hardie has had to watch a significant part of the past season from a place he’s not used to being -- the sideline.
Emanuel won the 2014 Buck Buchanan Award as the most outstanding defensive player in FCS, has been named to multiple All-America teams, and was named the Missouri Valley’s defensive player of the year among many other accolades. He ranks ninth in FCS history and fourth in MVC history with his 35.5 career sacks, and is just one sack away from sole possession of first place on the Bison sack list. Emanuel led FCS this season in tackles for loss (31) and sacks (19.5).
The season opener for the Bison was a marquee moment for Emanuel, as he contributed four tackles for loss and two sacks in a 34-14 win at FBS opponent Iowa State. That game also happens to be the last time Hardie has felt as healthy as he does going into Saturday.
Hardie missed four games with a hamstring injury, and while he appeared in the other 11 games, he has rarely been close to 100 percent, especially when dealing with a sprained ankle earlier in the playoffs. The three weeks between the semifinals and championship have turned out to be what the doctor ordered for Hardie, who says he is feeling great.
“It makes a huge difference to have Mike healthy,” head coach Chris Klieman said. “The other guys have done a great job of stepping in while Mike was hurt, but you get a guy with the fifth-year experience factor, and he’s healthy, and he understands the defense so well. Mike will be an integral part of our defense on Saturday.”
It was difficult for Hardie to have to sit out, especially in his senior season while he watched his partner in Emanuel tear up opposing offensive lines. Hardie had played in all 15 games in each of the prior two seasons, so sitting out was not a feeling he was familiar with.
“I was hoping for more of a breakout year, a bigger year.” Hardie said. “It didn’t work out that way, but we are still here in Frisco and those team goals are much more important than the individual goals.”
Hardie knew he had Emanuel’s support, and Emanuel is thrilled to know that his defensive line partner is raring to go for the championship.
“It’s awesome for Mike, being one of my best friends on the team and a guy I’ve been playing defensive end with for five years now,” Emanuel said “For him to finally be healthy and feeling good, especially for this magnitude of a game, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Hardie’s return gives the Bison defense even more experience -- something it wasn’t exactly short on, even when he was out. Hardie has played in 45 career games. Emanuel has played in all 60 during his time in Fargo. Senior free safety Christian Dudzik has not only played in all 60 of those games, but started in all of them.
In all, six defensive starters from last season’s unbeaten championship team returned this season. The Bison defense has been the best scoring defense in the country for the past three years and ranks No. 2 in FCS this season, surrendering 13.2 points per game. The unit is third nationally in total defense, giving up 270.8 yards per game. Something will have to give when it faces an Illinois State offense that racks up 466.4 yards per game and is ninth in scoring offense with 39.1 points per game.
Klieman, who was the defensive coordinator for the first three championships, will be relying on that experience and consistency on Saturday. When searching for how the Bison have sustained such success, looking at the leaders they have in Emanuel and Hardie is a good place to start.
“There are a lot of things that go into that,” Emanuel said. “It goes from coaching to the strength staff, but I think just the culture around NDSU and how we prepare and how we truly play as a team. It always comes down to just playing as a team and playing hard.”