New Bison assistants reveling in playoff run

FARGO — North Dakota State assistant football coach Nick Goeser could probably write a doctorate on what it’s like to work during the Division I FCS playoffs. He’s been a part of all 35 Bison games since the school first qualified for postseason in 2010.

That 2010 run ended in a loss at Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals. Since, there were two different NDSU head coaching generations that led the Bison to seven national titles in eight years. The third generation under head coach Matt Entz has brought a few assistants going through the playoff frazzle in Fargo for the first time.

For a guy like offensive line coach AJ Blazek, the alternative at the FBS level may not have worked out so well. He was part of the staff at Rutgers that was let go after three games this season. Blazek took the Bison job last winter. One of his players at Rutgers, offensive guard Jonah Jackson, transferred to Ohio State as a graduate transfer.

Combined, Blazek’s and Jackson’s teams are 26-0.

“We were together three years. Went through the ups and downs and how do we motivate every week,” Blazek said of coaching Jackson at Rutgers. “He’s on an undefeated run at Ohio State. We chuckle at how your fortunes turn out. It all goes back to being around the right people. I knew the program here, what I was getting involved with and this staff has been a lot of fun.”

Blazek has been through one FCS playoff run before. In 2015 as the offensive line coach at Western Illinois, the Leathernecks defeated Dayton in the opening round before running into No. 2 playoff seed Illinois State, losing 36-19 in Normal, Ill.

Ironically, Blazek will face the Redbirds again in the playoffs when NDSU hosts Illinois State at 11 a.m. Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The winner of the quarterfinal game moves on to next weekend’s semifinals.

Defensive coordinator David Braun had a similar FCS playoff run as Blazek did when he was an assistant at Northern Iowa in 2017 and 2018. The Panthers defeated Monmouth in the 2017 first round before losing to South Dakota State in the second round. UNI had the same fate last year beating Lamar (Texas) in the first round before falling to UC Davis 23-16 on the road in the second round.

So it’s the first time getting this far in December with an FCS team for Blazek, Braun, wide receivers coach Noah Pauley and running backs coach Dan Larson. It’s the first time as a coach for linebackers assistant Grant Olson, although he played on the first three NDSU FCS national title teams.

“They’re getting used to the system and the organization, how we move and our culture,” said NDSU senior offensive guard Zack Johnson. “I think they’re going along with it and loving every minute of it.”

Blazek, Braun, Pauley and Larson all trace their coaching roots to Division II or Division III levels. The biggest connection was Winona State (Minn.), where Entz, Blazek and Braun were all assistants.

Braun was the co-defensive coordinator at Winona State from 2011-14. He had to game-plan for one postseason game in 2012 when the Warriors beat Lindenwood (Mo.) in the Mineral Water Bowl. He was at UC Davis before two years at UNI.

“Everything is different in Fargo in a good way,” Braun said. “This is a special place. It’s different for our family, it’s different for our boys and it’s just a different feel around the coaching staff and players. We understand the magnitude of the game, but there’s a process, and it’s something we’re diligent about sticking to. Our guys are excited to play, but it hasn’t changed the way we approach a Tuesday practice.”