John Grass got his first glimpse of North Dakota State soon after he was hired as the offensive coordinator of Jacksonville State in 2013. When he took the job, the the first thing the former high school coach did was watch game film of that year’s FCS Championship match-up between North Dakota State and Towson.
“I wanted to see how the best did it,” Grass said. “I wanted to see where the bar was.”
In that game, North Dakota State ran its way to a third straight title under Craig Bohl in a 35-7 bludgeoning.
“I studied that film inside and out and to kind of see where the direction, where you needed to be at in recruiting and what type caliber athletes you needed to compete at this level, because they are the standard,” Grass said. “You've got to go through North Dakota State to win a National Championship. I think that's where the bar is at right now.”
Now the head coach of the Gamecocks, Grass will face that very same program in Jacksonville State's first ever FCS championship game.
“We're excited about an opportunity to play in this game and have the opportunity to play for a National Championship,” Grass said. “It's going to be a great game.”
Grass and the Gamecocks aren’t postseason rookies, but they are consummate pros of the playoffs, either. Jacksonville State has made the FCS playoffs three straight years, but hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2013 when the Gamecocks fell to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.
That year -- Grass’ first at JSU -- proved to the team they had what it took to compete with the heavy hitters of the FCS.
“It opened these guys' eyes of, 'Hey, we can really do this,' ” Grass said. “Then you went into the offseason with that drive to get there.”
But thanks to a bevy of injuries, the Gamecocks failed to return to the quarterfinals in 2014. Even still, Grass knew the team was hungry for more.
“That just left, I think, a burning desire in this group's going into the off-season to get back to where we were and give ourselves that opportunity.” He said on JSU’s 2014 postseason. “That's what they've done thus far, and we're excited about playing in this game and not satisfied just to be here. I think they have an ultimate goal that they want to accomplish. They want to go out and perform well enough to give themselves that chance.”
While the Gamecocks’ deep postseason ambitions are only now coming to fruition, North Dakota State has been the epitome of consistency when it comes to competing for championships.
The numbers speak for themselves: Since 2010, NDSU is 21-1 in the postseason, including four consecutive championships and a shot at a FCS-record five straight. In those games, The Bison average 30.7 points. During the 2015 playoffs alone, the Bison outscored opponents 93-26. In Chris Klieman's first season as head coach in 2014 (he was promoted from defensive coordinator after three-time champion Craig Bohl left for Wyoming), cruised to yet another title despite the change in leadership.
But adversity struck in Klieman’s second year. The tumultuous season began with a season opening loss at Montana and continued with an injury to star quarterback Carson Wentz. With a lack of experience on defense, two losses in the books for the first time since 2010 and backup quarterback behind center, many wondered if this was the year the Bison would finally fall from the FCS pedestal.
“People thought, well, the Bison are probably done,” Klieman said. “Then when Carson Wentz got hurt, I would have said most people didn't think this team probably was going to maybe even get to the playoffs, let alone make a run.”
Unphased, the Bison stormed into the postseason with the momentum of a five-game winning streak and cruised through opponents. First up, a revenge game against Montana in which the Bison easily won 37-6. Next, a close 23-13 win over Missouri Valley Conference foe UNI. Finally, a 33-7 dismantling of Richmond put the NDSU back where it belongs: In the FCS Championship.
“We went through some growing pains,” Klieman said. “Ever since, I would say about the time middle to late October, our guys started to understand each other's strengths out on the field and understand where they fit.”
Despite the stark differences in postseason experience (JSU is only 5-2 in playoff games since 2013), Kliemann doesn’t believe the Bison have any more competitive edge over the Gamecocks than any other team.
“The only thing that I think the experience does is our guys know what they're getting into when we head down to Frisco. They know the routine. They know the practice. They know where the stadium's at. They know the walk from the stadium to the field,” he said. “All those things are little things that maybe take some of the nerves away. But it's going to play no factor once we kick that thing off at 11 o'clock against a great football team."