Was there ever really a doubt?
Trailing by four points with about 1½ minutes remaining and with a fourth consecutive FCS championship on the line, did anyone expect the North Dakota State football team to falter Saturday afternoon?
The Bison made history by defeating Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Illinois State 29-27 for the title in dramatic and downright astounding fashion.
They were nowhere near perfect. But when it mattered most, NDSU displayed every bit of that championship swagger it had accumulated over the past four seasons.
The ending was nothing less than storybook for the Bison, which had a 33-game win streak snapped by Northern Iowa in November, almost lost to rival South Dakota State in the second round of the FCS playoffs, got pushed to the brink by Coastal Carolina the next week and found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard against a tough Redbirds team without much time left in the title game.
But the Bison did what champions do — they found a way to win.
They did it with their best receiver, Zach Vraa, playing at half speed and their star senior linebacker, Travis Beck, standing on crutches on the sidelines. They did it despite arguably the best running back in the history of a program filled with great ones being held without one of his trademark breakaway scampers. They won because first-year starting quarterback Carson Wentz and a true freshman receiver RJ Urzendowski made smart, momentum-swinging decisions on the pivotal final drive.
NDSU did what many pundits expected them to do coming into the day, and they still exceeded those expectations along the way.
Here in western North Dakota, we watched players hardly expected to shine their brightest on a national stage do just that.
Wentz and linebacker Esley Thorton, both from Bismarck, and Beach High School graduate Landon Lechler, the starting right tackle, all played huge roles for NDSU this season — especially with the championship at stake.
It was apparent during their high school days that these guys had special talents. They all had size and athleticism, but it wasn’t until they got to NDSU that they put their skills together.
Wentz has always been a solid quarterback. But did anyone ever expect him to lead a championship-winning drive for the Bison and earn player of the game in the process? Probably not.
Thorton was a quarterback-turned-linebacker. Was he expected to turn into a reliable defensive starter and end his career with the title-clinching interception? Hardly.
Lechler was a project player — a huge kid with untapped potential and a good head on his shoulders who chose the Bison over a scholarship offer from Dickinson State. Was he expected to be starring as a redshirt sophomore? Never. Even Nate Moody — the Dickinson High School graduate who sat out much of the season with a knee injury — wasn’t expected to do a whole lot at NDSU. Still, the receiver has played in three national title games and turned into a reliable blocker and short-yardage option who will get a shot at his fifth championship ring next year after being granted a medical redshirt this season.
All of these players are champions — many times over. And on Saturday, these Bison and their teammates played like champions.