FARGO, N.D. — Most of the 18,881 fans attending Saturday night’s Football Championship Subdivision kickoff had their hearts in their throats in the final minutes as five-time defending national champion North Dakota State struggled to hold off the charge of surprising Charleston Southern.
After the Bison faithful at the Fargodome exhaled collectively as a 50-yard, CSU field goal attempt sailed just wide left of the uprights on the final play of regulation in a 17-17 game, NDSU survived for the 24-17 win when King Frazier bounced a misdirection play outside of containment for 25 yards and a touchdown and the Bison defense held the Buccaneers one final time.
For the second year in a row in the three-year FCS Classic on ESPN, you couldn’t have asked for a better showcase of this under-appreciated level of college football.
Last year, it was the combination of Brent Musberger and Jesse Palmer’s announcing, the fine ESPN production, the omnipresent enthusiasm of the Washington-Grizzly Stadium crowd and Montana’s 37-34 victory over North Dakota State in the final seconds, that provided fans with one of the most thrilling performances in FCS history.
On Saturday, NDSU and CSU came about as close as they could to matching that monumental effort.
You had a respectful ESPN College Game Day production and TV broadcast and the loud and crazy Bison fans cracking the 100-decibel mark for noise.
One of this writer’s favorite moments came in the fourth quarter when a blond-haired, blue-eyed youngster stood cheering on camera, complete with a Bison-horned hat that would have done Fred Flintstone proud. Can anyone say Future Grand Poobah?
Most FCS followers probably thought this game would be a huge mismatch, with one of the most humble programs in the subdivision (Charleston Southern) facing a championship juggernaut (North Dakota State).
The Buccaneers, who made their first-ever playoff appearance last season, was a three-touchdown underdog in the mind’s of the oddsmakers, though they easily covered that spread.
Unflappable CSU coach Jamie Chadwell had his team about as well prepared as any team that has ventured into the Fargodome in recent years and the Buccaneers never seemed to lose their composure.
The first half was a defensive struggle, with each team managing few yards on offense as they battled unsuccessfully against two of the top defenses in FCS.
Jacob Smoak converted a 46-yard field goal early in the second period for the Bucs and NDSU’s Cam Pederson got a couple of lucky breaks on the final play of the first half when his 52-yard kick was nearly swatted away at the crossbar before hitting the bar and tumbling over it by inches.
Pederson had missed a 43-yard field goal attempt early in the game to kill a Bison drive.
Sophomore quarterback Easton Stick (17-of-27 passing for 194 yards), who went 9-0 last season when veteran starter and now Philadelphia Eagle Carson Wentz was sidelined with a broken wrist, was shaky until tossing two perfect, second-half TD strikes to Darrius Shepherd of 23 yards and to RJ Urzendowski for 47 more as NDSU turned CSU’s 10-3 lead into a 17-10 Bison advantage.
Charleston Southern came out strong in the third period and scored its first TD on a brilliant, speed-option, cutback run from Mike Holloway (10 carries, 126 yards rushing) for 47 yards less than two minutes into the second half.
The Bucs tied the game again with 2:47 remaining when Holloway followed his blockers for a six-yard scoring smash and Chadwell decided to have Smoak kick the extra point instead of going for two.
Stick and the Bison made one final attempt to get into field goal range on their final possession of regulation, but the Bucs — led by the swarming play of All-American defense end Anthony Ellis — made enough big plays to force NDSU to go for it on fourth and four from the 36 with 27 seconds left instead of trying a 53-yard field goal.
That decision nearly proved fatal when Stick was flushed from the pocket and fired a pass behind his intended receiver. It was intercepted by Troy McGowens, who returned it 30 yards to the NDSU 40 and was only prevented from a pick-six by Stick’s desperation tackle.
CSU had 18 seconds to get into field goal range, but an incomplete pass and QB Kyle Copeland’s seven-yard dash to the Bison 33 left Smoak and the Bucs facing a long field goal for the win.
It was immediately clear that Smoak got enough of the ball to get it the distance, but the kick veered off to the left at the end to send the game to overtime — the first extra-time NDSU game ever at the Fargodome.
CSU won the toss and decided to defend, but a missed tackle on Frazier (11 carries, 79 yards) allowed the speedster to pop the ball to the right perimeter on the first play and CSU didn’t have enough containment to keep his out of the end zone.
Copeland (8-of-20, 94 yards) narrowly missed connecting with his tall and rangy receiver Kameron Brown near the 10 on first down for CSU and Holloway managed only one yard on second down. Two more incompletions sealed the win for North Dakota State and allowed the Bison fans to breathe a large sigh of relief.