NDSU trying to cap an undefeated season, match the 2013 team
FARGO — Former North Dakota State defensive end Cole Jirik started on the last NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision team that went undefeated on the way to a national championship.
The Bison capped the 2013 season with an unblemished 15-0 record after cruising to a 35-7 victory against Towson (Md.) in the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas.
Five years later, NDSU is knocking on perfection’s door again.
“It sets up as a perfect storm to compare the two teams,” Jirik said.
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The Bison are set to play Eastern Washington for the national championship Saturday, Jan. 5, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. NDSU has a 14-0 record and could become the fourth FCS team to go undefeated and win a national crown.
“I know we’re going to be compared to that team,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman, who was the NDSU defensive coordinator in 2013. “That was a special football team, and this team has some work to do to get that last win.”
There are many similarities between the 2013 and 2018 Bison teams.
Both have seasoned quarterbacks who won at historical rates. A senior on the 2013 team, Brock Jensen finished his career with an FCS record 48 wins, including a 47-5 mark as a starter.
Current Bison senior quarterback Easton Stick has a 48-3 record entering the title game. One more win, and Stick would stand alone atop the FCS career wins chart for QBs.
In 2013, head coach Craig Bohl took the head coaching job at Wyoming during the playoff run, but finished off the playoffs with NDSU. Current head coach Chris Klieman took the head coaching spot at Kansas State earlier in this playoff run. Klieman, like Bohl, is also coaching the Bison through the FCS playoffs.
The 2013 team won its four playoff games by an average score of 43.3-10.5. The 2018 team has an average 43.7-10.3 winning score through three playoff games. The 2013 team had 23 seniors, while this year’s squad has 24.
“That’s what makes the comparison so eerie with both of these teams,” said Jirik, who had a sack in the 2013 championship game.
“The one word that comes into my mind of the biggest similarity is dominance,” Jensen said.
The numbers back up Jensen:
The 2013 team averaged 38.7 points per game and allowed 11.3. Through 14 games, the 2018 team is averaging 41.7 points a game, while allowing 11.8
The 2013 team averaged 457.5 yards per game and allowed 255.9. The 2018 team is averaging 470.6 yards per game, while allowing 284.4 entering the title game.
In 2013, the Bison scored 79 touchdowns and allowed 20. The 2018 team has scored 80 touchdowns and allowed 21 with one game to play.
In 2013, the Bison scored touchdowns on 77 percent (50 of 65) of their red-zone visits. The 2018 team has scored on 81 percent (47 of 58) of its red-zone trips thus far.
“If those two teams would have played, I think it would have been a fun matchup,” Jirik said. “I don’t think there would have been a ton of points scored.”
The 2018 Bison, however, still have one more important step take to be in the conversation with the 2013 team: They have to win the national championship to cap the perfect season.
“They have the firepower to get it done,” said former Bison running back Chase Morlock, who was a true freshman on the 2013 squad. “Those guys just look incredibly comfortable this year. The same thing was true in 2013.”
One thing the 2013 team can boast that the 2018 team can’t is a win against a Division I FBS team from a Power Five conference.
The 2013 team started the season with a 24-21 victory against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan. Jensen led the Bison on a game-winning 18-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that lasted 8 minutes, 30 seconds. Jensen capped that march with a 1-yard touchdown run that gave NDSU a 24-21 lead with 28 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
“Having that game kind of validates the perfect season,” Jirik said “Unfortunately, this (2018) team didn’t have a chance to play a Big Ten team or Big 12 team or one of the big boys.”
Jensen said the Kansas State victory is one of the highlights of his decorated career, which included national championships in his final three seasons.
“These FBS games are not to be overlooked and each one of them has their special place in Bison history,” Jensen said.
Jensen and Jirik agreed the 2013 team may have the edge in starpower. Starting offensive tackles Billy Turner and Joe Haeg are both in the NFL. Backup quarterback Carson Wentz was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Running back John Crockett also made an active NFL roster. Starting defensive end Kyle Emanuel and starting cornerback Marcus Williams are both in the NFL. CJ Smith, who started opposite of Williams at cornerback, also played in the NFL.
Jensen, starting wide receiver Ryan Smith and running back Sam Ojuri also had varying levels of success in the Canadian Football League.
“As far as the individuals on that ’13 team, a lot of those guys are in the NFL,” Jensen said. “There were some absolute dominant figures.”
The 2018 team may have a slight edge in overall depth. The Bison have five players, including Stick, who have rushed for at least 550 yards entering the FCS title game.
“This year it’s kind of like, gosh, we just have an arsenal of players out there,” Jensen said. “Both teams are dominant for sure in their own right.”
Jirik said the 2018 offense may be slightly more explosive than the 2013 team, which finished that season with two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver in wideout Zach Vraa.
Bison senior receiver Darrius Shepherd has 940 receiving yards entering the title game against Eastern Washington. Senior running back Bruce Anderson leads NDSU with 924 rushing yards entering the championship.
The Bison rank sixth in the FCS in scoring offense and second in scoring defense.
“The biggest difference of this (2018) team is how dynamic they are on offense,” Jirik said. “Not that the ’13 offense wasn’t good by any means, but this is probably the best offense NDSU maybe (has) ever had.”