With North Alabama, the FCS is getting a much-needed quality program

FARGO — A familiar face in a purple North Alabama polo shirt was roaming the green-and-gold dominated tailgate area outside the Fargodome late Saturday morning, Sept. 15. When Dan Summy was at North Dakota State in the 1990s, he was an assistant athletic director who did some productive hand-shaking with the local boosters. The fundraising has morphed into a well-oiled machine at North Dakota State University, in much the same manner the football program has since it left NCAA Division II. Summy was the athletic director at the University of North Alabama from 1995-2002 and is now serving more in a semi-retired advisory role. His Florence, Ala., school scheduled the game with the defending Division I FCS national champions as a way to see where they fit in the scope of the subdivision. The result: They’re not that far off. If UNA head coach Chris Willis has his way, he and Bison head coach Chris Klieman will be text-message buddies the next few years. “I talked with coach before the game, and I’m going to stay in touch with him,” Willis said. “We’re going to talk. I hope he can help me along the way. He’s not going to give me all the secrets but just the way they recruit the tall guys, bring them in at 240 and put the weight on them. That’s the way to do it.” The Lions defensive line held up far better than Cal Poly did in the season opener. The Lions showed some FCS-level speed at a few positions. Their receivers made some of the best catches that you’ll see, and UNA left Gate City Bank Field as the last team to score. That was a 23-yard throw-it-up-in-the-end-zone touchdown pass from backup quarterback Chris Weaver to a leaping Dexter Boykin. The final was 38-7 in front of 18,557 fans. Maybe someday these two teams will meet in the playoffs, and if that’s the case, look for the Bison to bring a little more thunder to the matchup. Count Klieman as one who is glad the Lions made the move. The FCS has seen some teams like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina move to FBS in recent years. It appears UNA will be a capable replacement in much the same way Kennesaw State (Ga.) is in its first playoff-eligible couple of years in the FCS. The school is located in one of the most talent-rich high school football areas of the country in the state of Alabama. And Willis plans on recruiting in the same manner as NDSU has done over the years. “I think they’ll be a force without question,” Klieman said. “I wish more teams would come up because I think our division needs to have more quality teams and quality opponents. And if there is a school like that, shoot, we need the better competition. We’re happy for them.” Klieman was impressed with the physical nature of the Lions defensive line, something that’s hard to see on film. UNA created some problems for the Bison running game with some defensive line twists and stunts. And there were a couple of plays where Klieman thought a Bison offensive player would get to the outside, only to see UNA having the overall team speed to close it down. “That’s a really good team,” said Bison quarterback Easton Stick. “Tough. Athletic. They did some different things schematically that maybe we didn’t expect. They’ll have a really good year.” The Bison power eventually wore down the Lions, which was expected. And you have to wonder how jacked the Bison players were in getting up for a first-year FCS team. Say what you want, North Alabama was not Northern Iowa or South Dakota State. NDSU took a 17-0 lead at halftime, and with the Bison defense, the game was already looking to be in hand. Willis thought it should have been a seven-point game at that point, and he’s right. The Bison got a gift touchdown when punter Joe Gurley couldn’t handle a high center snap. NDSU had to go all of three yards to go up 7-0. And early in the second quarter, the Lions were driving at the NDSU 35-yard line when Boykin was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Willis had to be restrained on the sideline by a staff member. That drive stalled, and NDSU went 80 yards in four plays the other way to make it 14-0. “You cannot play a team of that caliber and spot them 17 points,” Willis said. “I thought the game was closer at halftime. I felt at halftime, we were where we wanted to be outside of being behind.” The UNA program left Fargo with a lot of notes and observations for the next few years. The Lions will join the Big South Conference next year and will be eligible for the NCAA playoffs in 2022. “I would think the Big South teams are on high alert now,” Willis said.