FRISCO, Texas -- Carson Wentz had big shoes to fill.
North Dakota State has become one of those programs that reloads on the fly, but with the way 2014 started for the Bison, it seemed like a bit more rebuilding than usual was necessary.
Brock Jensen, a four-year starter at quarterback in Fargo, was out the door after three consecutive championships. So was head coach Craig Bohl, who took a job at Wyoming. In spite of that, as well as the loss of 23 other seniors, the Bison machine rolled along to a fourth Football Championship Subdivision title in four years, defeating Illinois State, the team it shared the Missouri Valley Football Conference title with, 29-27 on Saturday afternoon.
And it was Wentz, a junior and in his first season of seeing meaningful time on the field, who orchestrated a six-play, 78-yard drive in the final minutes to secure the win for the Bison.
His counterpart, Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson, ran 58 yards into the end zone at the 1:38 mark, giving the Redbirds the lead and severely threatening the Bison’s reign atop FCS.
Wentz responded by completing passes of 32, 13 and 33 yards, all to freshman receiver RJ Urzendowski, before punching it in himself on the ground from five yards out to give back North Dakota State the lead it held for most of the game. On the ensuing Illinois State drive, Esley Thorton sealed the game with an interception, sparking the large contingent of Bison fans among the 20,918 at Toyota Stadium into a familiar-feeling celebration.
North Dakota State becomes the first FCS team to win four consecutive titles. Eastern Kentucky (1979-82) and Youngstown State (’91-94) each made four in a row, but neither won all four. The only other college football team to make such a run is Augustana (Ill.), which won every Division III title from1983-86. It is the second time an NDSU team has won four in a row, with the other being the women’s basketball team from 1993-96.
“With our guys, you never saw any doubt in their mind,” Bison first-year head coach Chris 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.”
The Bison had taken a timeout before the game-winning touchdown, and Wentz said that they set up two plays out of the timeout. The first one was designed for him. The second turned out to be unnecessary.
“Something that I love about [offensive coordinator Tim] Polasek 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,” Wentz said. “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.”
The difference with this championship from the previous three is that it came with different faces at the two biggest leadership positions on the team. It caused doubt at the beginning of the season -- at least from outside the program.
“One thing that's been different is all the naysayers at the beginning of the year,” Wentz said. “New coach, new quarterback, four new offensive linemen. Just all the stuff we went through, losing all the seniors. There are a lot of doubters and naysayers; I would say that started it a little differently, but as the season progressed, there wasn't much difference in my opinion.”
While the result is the same, the way Wentz got there was a bit different from the way Jensen did. Opposing defenses are have been on their heels all season dealing with Wentz’ ground game in addition to his passing game, and his season total of 642 yards on the ground is the best for the Bison since 1996.
Wentz showed off his fleet feet and running ability early and often throughout Saturday’s game. It got off to a bit of a rocky start as he went for a long gain after a scramble on the first drive, his third rush of the drive, only to fumble and turn the ball over. At 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, Wentz is not afraid of taking a hit as he fights for extra yards. Despite the early fumble, he continued to go on the run and pound away for those yards, as well as use his maneuverability to escape several sacks.
In the second quarter, a play seemed dead in the water, but Wentz rolled out away from incoming Redbird defenders and found a wide-open Zach Vraa for a 42-yard gain. That play led to the score that put the Bison ahead 10-7.
Wentz finished the game 15-of-22 passing through the air for 237 yards and a score, and led the team in rushing with 87 yards on 16 attempts, including a team-long 35-yard scamper.
“Right when that clock hit zero, I had so many emotions I couldn't say anything,” Wentz said. “I didn't know whether to cry or to be happy. It was just unbelievable. But to be part of this program, growing up in the state, seeing what it became coming from the Division II to the Division I level, the success. It was really a no‑brainer for me to come here, and as you can see, I think it was really the right choice.”
So the North Dakota State system passed its big test. The people who led (and won) before left, and new ones stepped into their place without skipping a beat. Now, a senior class that has gone 58-3 in four years departs, but if this year is indication, there isn’t any reason for Bison fans to worry about that.