North Alabama making quick work of getting its feet wet in FCS

FARGO — It has its own nickname in the laurels of North Dakota State football playoff history. It was the 2000 NCAA Division II semifinals at Delta State (Miss.) and torrential rains left the Delta Devils’ field in a state of mush.

It was called the “Kitty Litter Game,” mainly because that was what the field resembled — a box of cat litter. Chris Willis was there, a fledgling assistant coach with Delta State who was just getting his feet wet, so to speak, in the business. Eighteen years later, Willis will once again coach on the opposite field of the Bison.

Times have changed, however. It’s more than most programs going to artificial turf instead of natural grass susceptible to rain. Willis remembers the substance being poured on the Delta State field as some sort of “quick dry powder.”

“It was really wet and tore up,” he said.

Willis moved on in the coaching ranks and on Saturday, Sept. 15, the head coach at the University of North Alabama will bring his team to Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The Lions are in their first year of a Division I reclassification and as a measuring stick of sorts, want to see where they stack up with the top-ranked team in Division I FCS and the reigning national champion.

They’ve already made one statement against a defending champ. UNA went into Cedar City, Utah, on opening weekend and stuck a 34-30 loss on Southern Utah, last year’s regular season champion in the Big Sky Conference. The Lions made it two straight last week defeating FCS Alabama A&M 25-20.

“I don’t think many people gave us a shot in game No. 1,” Willis said. “And then to play a team 75 miles down the road that was an old rivalry. There has been a lot of great excitement. We’re all smiles around here.”

The goal for the program, Willis said, remains more long term. UNA will join the Big South Conference next year and will play a full league schedule. Because of NCAA transition rules, it won’t be eligible for the FCS playoffs until 2022.

Until then, it is considered an independent. The Lions for years were a Division II title candidate, including meeting NDSU in the 1985 championship game in McAllen, Texas. The Bison won 35-7.

UNA last reached the title game in 2016 losing to Northwest Missouri State. The last Division II title was in 1995. Last year, in Willis’ first year as head coach, the Lions went 5-5.

“It’s one of these things where we don’t expect overnight success,” Willis said. “For us, we can’t play in postseason play so you could go 11-0, 10-1, 9-2 but at the end of the day, you’ll get a slap on the back and you don’t get anything else. We understand that. It’s something we have to overcome.”

NDSU can relate. The Bison started their Division I reclassification in 2004 and were ineligible for postseason until 2008. Still, they put together highly successful seasons going back-to-back with 10-1 records in 2006 and ’07.

Willis has paid attention to NDSU over the years since that 2000 playoff game, a convincing 34-16 Delta State win. He says the Bison of the FCS look more athletic than the Division II version.

“I don’t see any weaknesses,” he said. “Again, the biggest thing this year is we want to be competitive. We don’t want to be a doormat. We just want to make sure we’re in every game and have an opportunity to win every game.”

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