By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — One of the most riveting stats of the 2012 season for North Dakota State is simply the number six — that being the number of games decided by a touchdown or less over the course of the team’s 14-1 record and that culminated in the program’s 10th national championship and second-straight at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
The latter half of NDSU’s season saw a lot of doubts among Bison fans and to a greater degree throughout the FCS world as people began to see the offense, highlighted by quarterback Brock Jensen’s several pick-sixes, including the pair he threw to Indiana State defensive back Johnny Towalid that led the Bison to their only loss this season.
That late-season slump that nearly cost NDSU the top seed (and the crucial home-field advantage throughout) set the tone for the playoffs as Bison fans found themselves glued to the edges of their seats in the quarterfinal and semifinal games that saw team escape two triple option teams that gave the Bison all they could handle on both sides of the ball.
With that trepidation in mind, the journey to Frisco came with a heavy emotional toll that made the back-to-back title all the sweeter.
Our journey began in a college neighborhood in north Fargo, N.D., as I traveled with a family I tailgate with and have communicated with frequently in the past.
The patriarch of the family rented an R.V. for the journey, and at 11 a.m. we were off into the wild and thirsty for a football game.
Fortunately, this year our trip was both better planned and better funded, and so our journey took us entirely on the Kansas Turnpike and thus avoiding the seedier parts of the American Midwest that we encountered on our first sojourn through the heartlands (one that included confederate flags around the south part of Wichita, KS.).
Traveling down I-29 to Omaha, we connected to I-35 around Topeka and continued on through Wichita, Oklahoma City, and at last, Dallas.
Arguably the funniest single line of the trip came after we arrived at approximately 5 a.m. Friday morning when, following a few hours of sleep as we awaited our rooms at the Colony Fairfield Inn to be prepared, we decided to patron a local International House of Pancakes for a hearty Texas breakfast.
Expressing his distaste at the restaurant’s choice of their orange juice’s fresh-squeezed state, fellow NDSU student Matt remarked, “They can fresh-squeeze this straight into the garbage.”
After checking into the hotel and spending a few hours’ downtime cleaning up and getting settled, we departed for the NDSU-sponsored pep fest that was held at Dr. Pepper Ballpark, just a few miles south of FC Dallas Stadium.
Following the debacle last year when the Plano Marriott found themselves woefully underprepared for the yellow tide of Bison fans that proceeded to pillage all bars within a mile radius, the NDSU alumni association booked the ballpark and its 8,000-strong capacity to accommodate the surge of Bison faithful that came ready to be energized for tomorrow’s game.
The pep fast was a smash hit. Featuring talks from NDSU legend Jeff Bentrim (who won three titles in the 1980’s at quarterback), former North Dakota congressman Rick Berg (an NDSU graduate) and U.S. Senator and former state governor John Hoeven, the event concluded with a ten-minute fireworks show sponsored by a local insurance company that certainly must’ve caught the attention of Sam Houston State players who were staying at the overlooking hotel.
Bison fans left arm-in-arm, ready to party the following day.
Dawn emerged on Frisco to the sound of a hundred tailgate rigs firing up, and before the sun appeared there were already snacks being served.
The Bison tailgaters were crammed into the much smaller east lot of the stadium’s parking, but that only served to intensify the atmosphere that the scene cultivated as drinks were cracked, food was grilled, and chants of “Let’s go Bison!” resounded.
As I wandered the tailgate lot, giving a “howdy” to the various folks I’d been tailgating with the entire year, I decided to pay a visit to the west lot to scope out the opposition’s tailgate and partake in one of the most notorious tailgate setups currently in existence.
While the Sam Houston State side of the tailgate lot was perhaps nearly as dense with people as their opponents, the number of rigs was noticeably thinner. The element that dominated this landscape, though, was a dark green school bus that proudly flew Bison flags and blasted music at a hundred decibels.
It was the fabled Frisco Cruiser, a school bus that had been saved from ruin a year and a half prior and that had traveled to its namesake community for the first time to herald another Bison championship and play host to the Bearkat faithful that dared to sample its wares.
The Frisco Cruiser was a source of numerous photo opportunities, among them plenty of Bearkat fans and the mayor of Frisco himself.
After bearing witness to numerous toasts of various beverages and the sacred tradition known only as “Das Boot,” it was finally time to enter the stadium.
I gave my neck a crack to either side, and set foot forward ready to watch destiny.
The group I’d purchased tickets with found themselves sat squarely in the middle of the SHSU side, and the thirty of us wound up with a fantastic view of the Bison side which, unlike last year where the numbers were mostly even for each school, was clearly dominated by green and yellow in number and volume.
The shout of “BISON!” that arose during the national anthem almost drowned out the backwash from the flyover that to signal the game’s start, and at that moment I knew the home field advantage, despite being a thousand miles from “home,” was NDSU’s.
The coin toss went the way, and some Bison fans (myself included) immediately despaired when the Bison chose to receive the opening kickoff, abstaining from Coach Bohl’s usual tendency to defer and enter the second half with a renewed game plan and tweaked schematics.
The first drive sputtered, and Sam Houston drove the ball only to shank the attempted field goal.
The Bison still had the chance to draw first blood.
That chance came following a sensational John Crockett run off a pitch that brought the Bison into the BearKats’ red zone, and Adam Keller was able to kick a field goal in to secure the lead for NDSU.
A Marcus Williams interception — one that established the junior cornerback as the new school leader in career interceptions with 17 — set up an eventual Jensen touchdown run off a broken play that gave the Bison a two-score lead.
The Bearkats were able to recover, though, and tied the game at 10 before a botched Adam Keller field goal sent the teams into the locker room tied.
Around the stands, the attitude of Bison fans was one of confidence — “we’re a second-half team,” we said, “they led last year at the half, and we dominated. We can do it again.”
Boy, were we right.
The Bison would ultimately outscore the BearKats 29-3 in the second half, though the dagger was arguably determined much earlier when an apparent Tim Flanders touchdown run was called back due to holding on the SHSU offensive line.
Another interception resulted on the very next play, and the Bison didn’t look back.
The entire second half was a blur as the Bison crucified their opponents for every mistake, and suddenly the stands around us seemed deserted as the Sam Houston faithful simply couldn’t watch anymore.
We flocked to the lower stands, and when the clock hit zeroes, we stormed the field, 355 days after doing so the first time.
Victory was ours, and chants of “Back to back,” and “Let’s go Bison!” were exclaimed by the thousands of fans that found themselves on the turf of FC Dallas Stadium.
After snapping a few photos, watching the hoisting of the trophy, and watching Jensen receive his most valuable player award for his three rushing touchdowns (I was lucky enough to have a seat next to his father for the game), I left the stadium and remarked to several fans “We’ll see you in 52 weeks.”
I walked the tailgate lot in the same haze as the year prior, scarcely believing that I’d laid witness to the best FCS team in the country — even more so this year after the beat down that had just occurred on national television.
I heard champagne popping, laughter being had, and savored the taste of the Dominican cigar that I’d saved specifically for just such an occasion.
Bison fans everywhere rejoiced, and the mantra of “one for each finger” brought a smile to the faced of the NDSU faithful all across the city.
A night of celebrating followed, and when we took off the next morning it was with a mood of contentment as Frisco retreated in the back mirror.
The trip already seems far off, but the sense of pride residing in Bison Nation following back-to-back national titles even now has fans ready for next year’s season opener against Kansas State.
It’s a rare thing to watch a dynasty unfold in front of you, and an even rarer thing to have the privilege of sharing that experience with readers.
For the sake of my own team and those who care to follow the chronicles of such a run in college sports, I’m already looking forward to what might unfold in 2013.