FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Nearly one year after a bizarre spring season that cost perennial FCS power North Dakota State its three best players and a chance for a ninth national championship, the Bison feel like it's business as usual entering Saturday's championship game against Montana State.
The Bison (13-1) had won seven of eight FCS titles before losing to Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals that were moved to the spring because of COVID-19. The Bison entered the playoffs without quarterback Trey Lance and offensive lineman Dillon Radunz, both of whom passed on the spring season and were picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. They also lost star linebacker Jabril Cox, now of the Dallas Cowboys, to LSU.
Josh Swanson, who hosts a radio talk show in Fargo about Bison football, said the “topsy-turvy” spring has proved to be “a big motivation factor” for North Dakota State.
“I think we’ve heard a lot this fall from Bison players and coaches that they were focused and hungry and wanted to get the bad taste out their mouths from the spring and get back to Frisco, Texas,” Swanson said. “You don't want to minimize what the players and coaches did, but it almost had the feel of one of those preseason basketball tournaments like the Maui Invitational.”
Rather than dwell on the setback, North Dakota State coach Matt Entz touted the depth his team was able to build in the spring before the return to fall football.
“I tried to ensure our players, we knew fall was going to happen, it was going to look very similar to what it has in the past, and they’ve done a great job of getting back into Bison football, into our routine,” Entz said.
The Bison also managed to sidestep coronavirus issues that have led to the cancellation of several bowl games in the FBS. Entz said the timing of the January game allowed the team to create a “natural bubble” since most of the students were on holiday break. The Bison last played on Dec. 17, knocking off James Madison 20-14 in the semifinals in Fargo.
“Sometimes it gets sidetracked from we have so long to kind of wait and when we get down there’s so much going on, but we’re going down there to win and it’s a business trip like always,” Bison defensive end Logan McCormick said before leaving for Texas, where the game will be played at Toyota Stadium, the home of Dallas' Major League Soccer club.
North Dakota State, a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, has an 8-0 record in its previous FCS championship game appearances. Montana State (10-2), which plays in the Big Sky Conference, won the FCS crown in 1984. The Bobcats opted out of last spring's schedule.
University of North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert, who has coached teams in both the Missouri Valley and the Big Sky, said the championship teams have similar styles and a key factor will be running the ball and stopping the run. Bobcats quarterback Tommy Mellott and Bison QB Cam Miller are both running threats.
“The quarterback run game is going to be part of each plan,” Schweigert said. “North Dakota State, for years, it's my perception that they do that more in the playoffs and down the stretch than in the regular season. And Montana State sure did that in the semifinals against South Dakota State.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25