Usual Friday commencement-football game routine for Bison players different this year

FARGO — Before 12 North Dakota State players put on their football helmets this weekend, they will don another cap that also comes with a gown. They will be walking the stage at winter graduation on Friday afternoon to receive their degree.

It’s nothing unusual at this time of the year for NDSU.

“We actually have a routine and it’s crazy to say it’s a semifinal week and it’s routine,” said senior safety James Hendricks. “But we’re used to it and we’re ready to do another one.”

There is one adjustment in the routine this week. NDSU’s semifinal clash with Montana State for the right to go to the FCS national championship game is on Saturday. The last time that happened was in 2011 when the Bison defeated Georgia Southern 35-7.

ESPN changed its usual format at this time of the year and on Friday night will air an NBA game on the main network and the Frisco Bowl between Utah State and Kent State at Toyota Stadium on ESPN2. On Saturday, the Bison and Bobcats will be on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. with the other semifinal game, Weber State at James Madison at 5:30 p.m., to be aired on ESPNU.

From 2012 until last year, every Bison FCS semifinal game was played on Friday night at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

It means the players that are graduating won’t be receiving their diploma on a Friday afternoon and then immediately have to turn into game mode.

“I think it’s going to be a little more normal to be honest,” Hendricks said. “It might be better. But Friday night was always cool, the fans were crazy and the atmosphere was insane. Maybe this will be a better routine.”

NDSU is 8-1 in semifinal games since that first Georgia Southern game. The hiccup was in 2016 when James Madison stuck a 27-17 loss on the Bison, a year in which the Dukes went on to win the national title.

Take that Friday night game away and the Bison had their way with the other six by outscoring their opponents by an average of 40.3-13.0.

Still, it’s not as if time won’t be of the essence on Friday for the Bison graduates. The ceremony is at 2 p.m. and the players won’t have much time until they have to turn to football with meetings and a walkthrough practice.

“So hopefully we’ll get in and out of there in a timely manner because we have a full afternoon,” said senior tight end Ben Ellefson. “There are a lot of distractions but focusing on the things that we can control is pretty important.”

Hendricks is majoring in business management. Ellefson was the recipient of the NCAA Elite 90 Award at last year’s national title game that goes to the player with the highest cumulative GPA of the two participating teams.

Friday’s ceremony isn’t necessarily for a senior in his last year of eligibility, either. Long snapper Ross Kennelly, a junior, graduated last summer in sport management but had to wait until Friday to go through a ceremony.

“It’s fortunate that the people at records and registration let me walk,” Kennelly said. “It’s important to me because of the history and past years of guys being able to walk and play a football game. There are not many college football players that are able to do that with teammates.”

Kennelly is currently enrolled in NDSU’s MBA program. His last final was Thursday but that could last into Friday morning.

“Commencement will be fun and everything but I’ll be in that mode for the game by then,” he said. “We’re in the playoffs and you have to survive and advance and that’s what we’ll focus on.”