FARGO, N.D. — Any thoughts this week of North Dakota State’s dynasty finally reaching its demise proved false Saturday.
The top-seeded Bison won their 36th consecutive game and punched their eighth ticket in nine seasons to the FCS national championship with a resounding 42-14 win over Montana State inside the Fargodome.
“Well, how about that? That was a fun day,” said first-year NDSU coach Matt Entz. “Once again, the Fargodome doesn’t ever disappoint. Bison Nation never disappoints. Our fan support was at its best once again. Our kids were ready to go, but when they showed up and they saw the crowd and they heard the crowd and the volume, I knew what was going to happen.”
The Bison started fast, forcing Montana State’s offense into a three-and-out to begin the game. NDSU promptly marched down the field, covering 73 yards in 12 plays. Quarterback Trey Lance, the FCS freshman of the year, capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Bison a 7-0 lead and work the crowd of 18,000-plus into a frenzy.
Montana State, though, settled in and eventually found a rhythm late in the first quarter. Mark Estes took a handoff 26 yards and Isaiah Ifanse turned a short catch into a 39-yard gain to get the Bobcats inside the NDSU red zone. Travis Jonsen ultimately found the end zone on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1-yard line to knot the game up at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Enter, Christian Watson.
The sophomore receiver quickly flipped the game and momentum in North Dakota State’s favor. On the Bison’s first offensive play after Jonsen’s touchdown, Watson streaked down the left sideline and caught a beautifully thrown ball from Lance. He out-ran the MSU secondary for a 75-yard touchdown and a 14-7 NDSU lead.
After the Bison defense forced the Cats (11-4) into another three-and-out, Watson went back to work — this time in the ground game, taking a handoff for a 70-yard score. A two-point conversion would put NDSU up 22-7 early in the second quarter.
“We did not have a lot of answers for their explosive players, (Watson) in particular had a tremendous night and was a major matchup problem for us,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said.
“He’s a big receiver and he’s one of the fastest guys we’ve gone against this year,” added MSU senior safety Brayden Konkol. “He’s a really good player, and he’s only a sophomore, too, so he’s got a bright future.”
Watson had three touches the rest of the game — two carries for another 16 yards and one reception for another eight — but it was NDSU’s freshman phenom that took over. Lance finished the game 15-of-21 passing for 223 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another 64 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.
Lance’s second touchdown pass — a 6-yard strike to Jimmy Kepouros — gave the Bison a 29-7 halftime lead.
“He’s a special talent, he really is,” Choate said of Lance. “He’s a tough tackle. It’s not just that he can run. He’s not just a swift guy, he’s a powerful young man, as well. … He’s definitely a special talent, and, unfortunately, he’s going to be a problem for a while in the Missouri Valley Conference, and if we want to take that next step, we’ll probably have to see him again.”
Montana State still seemingly had life in the second half, though. Chase Benson forced and recovered a North Dakota State fumble to give the MSU offense a short field.
The Bobcats capitalized with Tucker Rovig lofting a perfectly thrown pass to Kevin Kassis for a 41-yard score to bring MSU back within two scores at 29-14. The defense took the field with renewed energy and forced the Bison into a third-and-5 at their own 27-yard line. Lance dropped back to pass, eluded several Bobcat rushers and eventually found a wide-open Dimitri Williams for a back-breaking 73-yard touchdown.
“To me, that’s a different-level play,” Entz said. “To be able to feel the pressure and keep your eyes, that’s not a freshman play. That’s an advanced play right there. That’s someone who’s played 50, 60, 70 games in their career, not a guy who’s on No. 15. I wish I could say — I’m sure (passing game coordinator Randy) Hedberg does, too — that that was coached, but that’s just God-given talent that that young man has.”
Lance added a 6-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter, which kick-started NDSU’s party bound for Frisco, Texas. The Bison (15-0) have won the past two national championships and seven of the past eight. This season's championship game is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2020. NDSU will play James Madison for the title. JMU (14-1) defeated Weber State (11-4) 30-14 in Saturday's other semifinal.
“Phenomenal. It’s hard to even wrap your head around that, just the level of success that this program has had,” said Choate. “I think it’s a tribute to their athletic administration, continuity of the coaching staffs, the community of Fargo and state of North Dakota. This isn’t a one-man show, everybody in this state seems to have a great deal of pride in what they do here. It’s an impressive organization from top to bottom.”