By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — There was a time when North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl ruffled a few feathers around the Football Championship Subdivision by proclaiming that his Bison team could win a “poll” championship by finishing undefeated in the regular season and ending up on top of the various FCS polls.
Bohl’s squad was ineligible for the playoffs at that time as NDSU made its transition from Division II to Division I.
After playing at Nebraska and spending several years as a Cornhusker assistant coach, you could see where Bohl could get confused at that time about the interworkings of FCS.
It turned out that Bohl’s idea was moot when South Dakota State ended the Bison’s hopes of an undefeated season and a Great West Conference championship with a crushing victory over North Dakota State.
Of course, there is a big difference between the hypocrisy of the Bowl Championship Series and the true playoff system of the FCS. And now after leading his team to the NCAA Division I Football playoffs last year in just its second season of eligibility, Bohl is fully aware of how the system works.
The Bison vaulted into the No. 1 position in all of the major FCS polls this week following a 27-19 victory at home Saturday over then-No. 2-ranked Northern Iowa, the traditional powerhouse of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Combined with top-ranked Georgia Southern’s 24-17 loss at No. 5 Appalachian State, the then-No. 3 Bison had nowhere to go but the top.
North Dakota State (8-0 overall, 5-0 in conference) is one of only two undefeated teams left in FCS, joining an 8-0 Sam Houston State club.
UNI had been a thorn in NDSU’s side since the Bison joined the MVFC, but this time around North Dakota State broke a 10-10 tie in the final minute of the first half on an eight-yard pass from Brock Jensen to running back D.J. McNorton and never looked back.
Jensen grew into the quarterback role during last year’s run to the FCS quarterfinals and has only improved this season. He led the Bison to a solid 37-24 victory over Jerry Kill’s BCS Minnesota squad earlier this season and was at his efficient best against Northern Iowa.
Jensen completed 22-of-25 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown in a showdown between the two undefeated MVFC teams. He ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency.
McNorton added a six-yard scoring scamper to go with his TD reception as he finished with 16 carries for 75 yards against a tough Panther defense.
And speaking of tough defense, NDSU held UNI to just 53 yards rushing when the Panthers came into the contest averaging 202 per game.
Defensive end Kyle Emmanuel recovered a fumble, forced by linebacker Travis Beck, and took it three yards for a touchdown to turn a 17-13 halftime lead into a 24-13 third-quarter advantage.
UNI’s dynamic multi-talented quarterback Tirrell Rennie was 20-of-30 passing for 224 yards, but he was limited to seven carries for 29 yards on the ground and he threw his first interception this season after a two-year streak of 171 passes without a pick.
Safety John Pike, another youngster who has come on strong since he earned a spot in the lineup against Minnesota, grabbed that interception and then sealed the win with a second pick with 1:47 to play.
NDSU was particularly tough on third downs, holding the Panthers to just three first-down conversions in eight attempts.
The Bison are three wins away from a perfect regular season, but that won’t be enough for North Dakota State this year.
After losing to eventual national championship Eastern Washington last year on a controversial overtime fumble call as Jensen appeared to score a touchdown that could have evened the score, NDSU is reaching for a real national championship, not just recognition in the polls.
The Bison can take another step towards that goal by beating a dramatically improved Indiana State squad this Saturday on the road.
Shakir Bell is averaging 156 yards per game on the ground for the invigorated Sycamores, but he will have to do his work on Saturday against a Bison team that ranks 11th in rushing (giving up only 100 yards per game) and second in scoring (12.5 points per game allowed).
Indiana State is also trying to keep its fledgling playoff hopes alive with a 5-3 record, coming off a 17-14 loss to Illinois State two weeks ago. Indiana State coach Trent Miles did have a bye week to get the Sycamores ready for NDSU.
The Bison close out the season at home against an improved Youngstown State squad and on the road against Western Illinois, but the Indiana State game may be all that is between NDSU and the top seed in the playoffs.
If Indiana State can somehow get by a Bison club that it has failed to beat in three previous attempts, the Sycamores have winnable games left at Missouri State and at home against Southern Illinois.
Northern Iowa, meanwhile, can still reach the playoffs with a couple of wins the rest of the way, though the Panthers have a tougher journey at home against Youngstown State — a team UNI always seems to beat — and Southern Utah and on the road to close the regular season at Illinois State.
Things could have been so much easier for the Panthers had they not lost in the final minute to Iowa State, 20-19, in the season’s first weekend. That is the same Iowa State team that animated Texas Tech last week and the same Texas Tech team that beat then-BCS-No. 1 Oklahoma.
What a difference a point makes.