The 2020 FCS Championship game will be played Saturday, January 11at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Here's everything North Dakota State first-year head coach Matt Entz said before his Bison face off against James Madison.
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COACH ENTZ: ...couple linebackers, really impressive on film. We know that we're going to have to continue to have great preparation and to have an opportunity to win this ballgame. But to have a ton of respect for James Madison's program. I've been fortunate enough to play them twice as a defensive coordinator here at North Dakota State. And know the type, the caliber of kids, how hard they play and know that it will be a great contest down in Frisco, Texas here a little over a week from now.
Q. When did you get a sense and realize this North Dakota State team, your team, was capable of a title game run and accomplishing kind of all the same things that North Dakota State teams have done in the past?
COACH ENTZ: We felt confident going into spring ball that we were going to be a good football team and have possibilities of winning some games and maybe surprising some people just because of the youthfulness of our roster, but I thought as the summer passed, we saw more and more leadership coming out of our younger classes, gave probably myself and our coaching staff a boost of confidence we could push this group a little bit more maybe than we had anticipated and then seeing the play out of our quarterback Trey Lance in fall camp again gave us some confidence that on the offensive side we would be able to move the football and be able to use some of those young weapons.
Q. You mentioned your quarterback, Trey Lance, and you said in your opening statement a little bit about Ben DiNucci, but the two quarterbacks in this game, Lance and DiNucci, what made those two guys -- obviously you know Lance well and watching DiNucci on tape.
COACH ENTZ: I think the thing you noticed first and foremost is neither one of them turned the football over. Both of them are extremely efficient in operating the offense. I don't want to say -- they manage games, they take over games, both will make plays for you with their feet. Both do a great job extending plays, buying time, being able to to keep their eyes down field find the open receiver on scramble issues, and Trey provides a large amount of quarterback run game for us as well. He's a big, physical kid that likes to have the ball in his hands and I think that makes him kind of a multifaceted weapon and we hope we get a chance to use his exploits this coming week.
Q. I wanted to ask, obviously you were talking about your freshman quarterback, your first year as a head coach I know you've been with the program, Curt his first year at James Madison, what does that say about these two programs, though, the fact that there can be turnover and there can be some change and these programs are still playing here in the National Championship game, the second meeting in three years and you guys have been here and you guys have been here?
COACH ENTZ: I think it talks a lot about the type of student-athlete both institutions are recruiting. I don't want to speak for Coach Cignetti but I know on our end we have 14 outstanding senior leaders on this football team, and those guys have provided me with a ton of valuable feedback during the course of the year, but I think without those senior leadership, it's going to be tough to be where we're at right now. Especially when you have a new head football coach. And in our case half our staff was brand new as well.
So those coaches we're trying to fit in as well. And our seniors did an outstanding job. Our returners did an outstanding job. I think it speaks volumes to the tradition at North Dakota State when you're able to continually have success on the football field, when you do have major turnover in the coaching office.
Q. Game-wise, you look at their rushing defense, obviously one of the best in the country. You guys obviously depend on the rush, talk about that matchup a little bit, your rushing offense against their rushing defense?
COACH ENTZ: They do a great job. They'll get into some different fronts. They're what I consider a 4-2-5 defense, play a lot of field looks to you, field under is what we're talking. It starts with, I think, two great book- end defensive ends with Ron'Dell Carter and John Daka, really dynamic players, guys that are in the backfield, consistently able to get after the quarterback. They play a number of different tackles that really solidifies their front. And their front seven is so dynamic, they can cover some ground.
I'm really impressed with Landan Word, No. 52, their Mike linebacker. He can play from sideline to sideline, make tackles. Looks like he kind of controls the defense, and they're very sound in what they do. You can tell they've been couched at a high level. They don't miss tackles or have busts when they bring pressure they make it count. They'll hit on it probably 90, 95 percent of the time. So it's an impressive unit.
On the offensive side we'll have to be able to handle some pressure and have to handle if it's single, if it's a corner coming from the (inaudible) field pressure, or if they want to bring that Mike or nickel from the field. Those are the things that have probably caused us some issues during the playoffs, and so we're going to have to be really prepared to handle that in our run game and also in our protections.
But it is going to be interesting. I feel confident. I know Coach Blazek, our offensive line coach, has done an outstanding job of working with our O line and continue to develop that group along with our tight ends.
We're going to need to find unique and creative ways to be able to run the football. We can't sit back there and just think we can sling it around 50 times.
Q. First thing, I know Easton Stick talked a lot about how he helped Trey Lance. Can you describe from your words what you've seen last couple of years with Easton and Lance?
COACH ENTZ: I think just last year, Lance being a true freshman coming in and having the opportunity to mimic and almost on-the-job type of shadow Easton Stick paid huge dividends towards his preparation and then the process he's sort of created for himself this year. When he came in as a true freshman, he saw how Easton was in the facility early watching cut-ups and games, trying to get a better grasp of what defenses would throw at him week-to-week.
And I think tray learned a lot from his own preparation from that. And it's become Trey and Zeb Noland and Noah Sanders down there watching the cut-ups and going through the process. I think now Trey has probably started to tweak that process to fit what he wants and what he needs more.
But I think it was unbelievably valuable for Trey to have a young man with the football smarts of Easton but also the character of Easton as well to learn from. But I'd be remiss if I didn't say they both probably learned a lot of it from their position coach, Randy Hedberg, who I think sometimes gets overlooked. What an unbelievable quarterback coach he's been. You just look at the last five, six years of his body of work. It's pretty impressive.
Q. Has a decision been made on Trey and the Peyton banquet?
COACH ENTZ: At this time, he is going to stay at the hotel with his teammates.
Q. Any injuries -- Phoenix Sproles, what's his status?
COACH ENTZ: He's been practicing up to this time and we're excited to have him.
Q. Braylon Henderson returning back to Frisco -- A, will he play; and, B, what does it mean for him and his family?
COACH ENTZ: I haven't made a decision yet about if he's going to play in the game. Of course it would be his fifth game and those are some things we've got to kind of look at as a coaching staff. And I need to see if the positives outweigh the negatives of losing a season of eligibility.
I know Braylon's extremely excited. Had an opportunity to visit with his mom last night. I think there's going to be a large contingent of Henderson family there that are excited to see him back in that area. Again, the Frisco/Plano area is an area we've been recruiting of late, and so it's exciting to see one of their own getting a chance to come back play a game in their hometown.
Q. Is there a formula for you guys between the semifinals and the final? And have you followed that, have you tweaked it? What are your thoughts on that?
COACH ENTZ: Well, we've had — we have a formula, Jeff. We had to tweak it a little bit this year because of the 12-week schedule, of course, and Christmas being so close to the semifinal game. Of course we need to balance days off with work days. The last thing you want to do is get heavy-legged over the course of these three weeks.
So we've followed a lot of the same protocol we've used over the course of my years at NDSU. But because of the calendar we've had to tweak some things. And we've got to make sure we're as fresh and as healthy as we can go when we get down to Fridays. We're playing an outstanding football team and we sure as heck can't be sluggish or slow or we'll get ran off the field.
Q. I wanted to ask you more about being a first-year coach going to the National Championship game. Both you and Curt are first-year coaches — different circumstances; he's been a head coach before. What are the challenges of being a first-year coach and trying to get a team back to where you want to be? What was -- something stand out in your mind that caught you by surprise maybe this year where you went, whoa, I didn't expect that?
COACH ENTZ: Probably the number one thing or my greatest concern, it goes all the way back to spring ball, was making sure that it still looked like Bison football -- how we practiced, how we go about our work during the week, how we attack the weight room, how Coach Kramer works with our student-athletes in the summer. That was my greatest fear.
And I mentioned his name earlier, Coach Hedberg, Tyler Roehl were two guys that I leaned upon greatly in that process. Of course, as a new head coach, it doesn't matter what program, there's things you maybe want to tweak or change, but I didn't want to reinvent the wheel, of course. I wanted it to continue to look like and feel like Bison football when you walked on the practice field.
So that was the thing that I constantly, probably had a thought process of is making sure -- is this Bison football? Are we practicing Bison-like? And so that was my greatest concern, being a first-year head football coach. Just of the number of things that you have to have, maybe your hands-on during the course of a season, sometimes it's frustrating.
I want to spend more time with the defensive staff, but there's other things that are pulling at you, especially when you're at a program like NDSU. But the great thing about it is I had a lot of help, great support, not only from our administration, but we got a great coaching staff here at NDSU as well.
Q. You touched on it a little bit earlier, but what about the culture at North Dakota State has allowed and sustained success? Coach Klieman worked for Craig Bohl, and you worked for Coach Klieman, and kind of continued coaches who have been in that culture and been in that program. So what about the culture has allowed you that success over the years?
COACH ENTZ: I'm going to, not to give a history lesson, but I think the culture started back in the early '60s when Darrell Mudra came here. There's been a high level of success. And there are certain things in this program that are nonnegotiable, and they've have been that way ever since I've been here and probably going back to the '60s with Coach Mudra.
We'll be an unbelievable, conditioned football team. We'll take pride in the details or just a couple things
that we constantly talk about in the program. We'll win with kids within a six-, seven-hour radius, and we have a Midwest feel to our program. And we recruit some outlying areas, of course, just out of need. But those kids buy into what we do and buy into how we go about our business.
Our practice style and our practice schedule probably sets us apart from a lot of places. And I think that in itself lends us to the culture that we have.
Q. From a holistic view, kind of including JMU as well, what are the biggest keys at the FCS level to have success, between the resources that you need to have and everything that goes into the pot to make for a successful FCS program?
COACH ENTZ: Well, of course having an administration that believes in football and understands the importance of football -- our president, Dean Bresciani, and athletic director, Matt Larsen, both understand the value that the football program provides -- not only to North Dakota State University but also the state of North Dakota.
But I think that the thing that separates our program -- and there's a lot of other programs that probably do this, but I think that makes us unique is -- the value we place on everybody who is associated with our program.
We have a great degree of appreciation for everyone who helps us. It doesn't matter if you're Bobby Knodel, the athletic trainer, or Margie Trickle, our administrative assistant. Everybody helps us win football games. I think because of that, our players see how much our coaches appreciate everyone. We appreciate our players. There's a great sense of connection.
We try to get to know each other's story. And when players know that their coaches care and when coaches know the players care, I think everyone works that much harder, plays that much harder for one another.
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Q. Could you maybe just speak to this idea -- and the forum guys do a great job covering -- just in terms of every year, you're the bar at this level, everybody's shooting for. Are you able to kind of enjoy the season as it goes? I suspect the degree of pressure kind of living up to this streak you guys have built -- are you kind of in the moment able to step back, able to enjoy what you all have done here?
COACH ENTZ: That's a unique question that you ask. If it weren't my first year, I probably might be able to step back more. But I'm probably still in that phase where every day is a new day for me right now -- trying
to make sure that our logistics are set, our travel group is set. There's a lot of things going on still.
I still try to get involved with the offense and defense and special teams as much as I can and just provide maybe a resource or for them to ask questions or thoughts and ideas that might be of use in the game coming up here in a little over a week.
But there will be time. We'll get an opportunity. I know that the Sunday after the semifinal game we had a staff meeting where we were able to visit and I was able to tell the staff how much I appreciated them, especially those coaches that decided to come to NDSU and work for a brand new head football coach, a first-year head football coach.
And I think that says a lot about a person, when they're willing to -- not to put their career on the line -- but to step out of a comfort zone and go work for someone they haven't worked for before because they like what they hear, they like the vision that he's presenting.
And so probably after the season we'll get more of a chance to reflect upon the entire year and our body of work, but right now our coaches are pretty focused on trying to find ways to be successful here a week from tomorrow.
Q. Along those lines, obviously not to look too far down the road here, but when you kind of look at this game, and for nerds like me who look forward to project, for your first game next year, it's kind of unique -- as great as this has been, this game going ahead to next year, it's really kind of, if this can go to a next level, even kind of a next-level thing even for the NDSU program?
COACH ENTZ: Well, again, just going to make sure that we take care of the 2019 football season. And I think that's one of the unique things that I should have commented on earlier. I think we do an unbelievable job -- Chris Klieman did, Craig Bohl did -- but every year we treat it as its own season. We don't try to overlap. We don't try to melt the years together. We don't try to blend them. You treat every team differently.
And this 2019 team got treated differently than the 2018 team, because you've got to balance the good with the bad and what are the advantages that this team provides, what are the things that they're not as good at. So we're just going to stay focused on this year now. And of course I know because of having some of the greatest, if not the greatest fans in the country, they're already thinking about next season. But I'm going to hold off on that right now.
Q. You talked earlier about taking over in your first year there as head coach. With Coach Cignetti, do you see the program as being fairly similar to what it was in the previous two games you played them, or do you see some differences, aside from personnel, obviously?
COACH ENTZ: Well, you know, you see a little bit of difference as far as maybe the makeup of what they're doing. Just from a defense and offensive standpoint, just I'm sure they have -- I know they have different coordinators.
Of course they have Coach Montgomery, who is their offensive coordinator, who we had to prepare for for years and years while he was an offensive coordinator at Youngstown State. So a little bit of familiarity with him or his name, at least.
But the things that you see that are consistent, great, talented football players and young men that play with energy and execution. But there is a lot of familiar names I see out there as well. A guy like Riley Stapleton, I remember seeing him in the game. So there is some carry-over as far as -- with the number of seniors that they have playing for them right now, there's some familiarity, just like personnel like you had mentioned.
Q. You stated earlier that you faced, as the D coordinator, JMU previously two times. What would you say is different about this team than the previous two JMU teams that you had faced?
COACH ENTZ: Well, I think just some of the run frames that they show you. A little bit of different run game here and there. If I remember correctly, and again I'm going back 2017, counter was -- they're still running some of the same things. Maybe they've added some other things that you have to be prepared for now, some different things formationally that you're seeing out there. And again probably because of new coordinators.
And we had to be prepared for a lot. When you have three weeks to prepare for a team I'm sure there's going to be a wrinkle, and I'm sure with both Coach Cignetti and Coach Montgomery being offensive coaches, they'll have something ready for the Bison defense.
Q. Has there been anything that your scout team has tried to simulate JMU that has been difficult, if anything?
COACH ENTZ: I think the main thing or the thing that's always difficult when you're talking about a scout team, doesn't matter if it's JMU or anyone, is the length that some of the receivers provide -- a Riley Stapleton, who is 6'4", 6'5", it's hard to emulate that length and the difference. He can go up and get 50/50 balls and they become a big concern. So that, of course, is always a concern.
Just the speed of the skill kids trying to mimic. So we've done some things from a practice standpoint to try to do some things good versus good, so we can see some speed on speed and hopefully emulate some of their athletes. But they've got a ton of them. That's hard to do for anybody.
Q. A few years ago I asked Coach Bohl about his recruiting strategy, and he kind of referred to it as knocking on every single door he could within kind of a 500-mile radius or so. How much of that sort of philosophy do you feel like has worked for you in your time in the program?
COACH ENTZ: I think that's a great way of stating it. I don't think our recruiting philosophy has changed dramatically in the six, seven years since Coach Bohl was here. We're going to continue to try to get the very best kids in the upper Midwest and then we have a couple of outlying areas that we utilize to fill some spots or some needs. I think we do a great job.
I think we try to be as thorough as we can. I want to say one of the great things -- and the things that our strength staff has helped with, our assistant coaches do an outstanding job with -- is our ability to develop long-levered athletes into being NFL-caliber offensive linemen, or taking a quarterback and making him a free safety, and trying to project kids into fitting a role for our program.
And I think that's where we've done a great job as a staff, not just this year but in previous years, of finding kids who are just good football players, putting them in a role where they can be successful at NDSU.
Q. Throughout your season, while you were focused on your team, in what ways were you able to pay attention to James Madison?
COACH ENTZ: I didn't. I'm being honest. My first year as head coach, I had plenty of things keeping me busy week-to-week, just trying to make sure -- guys, this place has had an unbelievable amount of tradition, since 1965 and before, as I mentioned before with Darrell Mudra.
My number one motivational tool this year was don't screw it up. And that meant I was going to keep the horse blinders on and I was only going to worry about us because that's the only thing that I have an effect on is the level of play of our kids, how they approach each week. That's the only thing I could influence as a head football coach, and I needed to make them priority one.
Q. Do you consider JMU and NDSU to be a rivalry?
COACH ENTZ: I don't know yet. I don't know what maybe constitutes a rivalry. We don't play each other annually. So I guess by that definition I would say no. But I do think it's two programs that respect one another and anticipate having to play a really good football game to win. And so that's what we at least think of when we see JMU and I hope their coaches and their players think the exact same thing.