FRISCO, Texas — North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz joked more than once late in the season that he wasn’t much into self reflecting on an unbeaten season. What started with a win on the Target Field natural grass against Butler in Minneapolis ended on the natural grass at Toyota Stadium in Frisco.
That was a 28-20 victory against James Madison that gave the program its eighth Division I FCS national title in nine years.
“I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and we’re still going to be getting ready for Butler,” Entz said in the post-game press conference.
On Sunday, Entz woke up to the season being over, the first college football team since Yale in 1894 to finish 16-0. It was NDSU’s 37th straight victory and improved the school’s record to 128-8 since 2011. Monday marks the 800th day since the Bison last lost a football game.
Entz also woke up to a team that is destined to bring back a loaded roster. The Bison lose 14 seniors and nine full-time starters, but most of them rotated with players who will be returning.
“We have a lot of 18- and 19-year olds that are in that locker room that learn from these four guys and other seniors,” Entz said, sitting next to seniors Ben Ellefson, James Hendricks, sophomore Jackson Hankey and redshirt freshman Trey Lance, “and it’s been an unbelievable ride.”
The ride came on the backs of several underclassmen who will return next season and it starts at quarterback with Lance. He had an unprecedented weekend winning the Jerry Rice Award for the best freshman in the FCS, the Walter Payton Award for the best offensive player in the FCS and the most valuable player award in the title game.
“We’ve got a quarterback that is mature beyond his years that everyone wants to be around,” Entz said.
“He’s that type of person. You want to gravitate to people like him because they make you better.”
He’ll have several offensive targets returning in starting receivers Christian Watson and Phoenix Sproles. Most of the primary backfield returns with Adam Cofield and Kobe Johnson and the expected return of Seth Wilson, who missed this season with an ACL injury.
The Bison lose only right guard Zack Johnson on an offensive line that started the same five for all 16 games. Returning are left tackle Dillon Radunz, left guard Nash Jensen, center Karson Schoening and right tackle Cordell Volson.
Ellefson will be a big loss at tight end, but sophomores Noah Gindorff and Josh Babicz were regulars as was freshman fullback Hunter Luepke.
“I know we don’t want to talk too much about the future,” Entz said. “But those are unbelievably valuable reps; the last three weeks have been valuable to our football team and to the future of our team.”
On defense, starting linebackers Jabril Cox, Aaron Mercadel and Hankey were all underclassmen. Hankey had 17 tackles against JMU.
“At the beginning of the year there were a lot of new faces and there were a lot of people that had a lot of questions about how good we were going to be,” Hankey said. “I was a new person. I had never really played. Coach Entz was a coordinator (last year). But we kind of knew what we had in the locker room. Maybe everybody else didn’t, but we had an idea we were going to be pretty good this year. And to see that all come to reality over a six-month season or whatever, it has just been an unbelievable journey.”
NDSU will be looking to replace all-American defensive end Derrek Tuszka and defensive tackles Cole Karcz and Jack Darnell. The Bison also rotated several underclassmen at both tackle and end.
The secondary loses cornerback Marquise Bridges and the free safety Hendricks. Cornerback Josh Hayes is back as well as primary backup Destin Talbert.
“Destin has given us great depth all year,” Entz said. “And has he played like a veteran? Not all the time but these reps that he’s gotten, when he can rotate with Marquise and Josh, are going to prepare him for the future.”
Kickers Griffin Crosa and Jake Reinholz return as does punter Garret Wegner and long snapper Ross Kennelly. Punt returner Trevor Heit was a junior.
Lance finished the season as the only NDSU player to rush for more than 1,000 yards with 169 carries for 1,100 yards. He completed 192 of 287 passing attempts for a 67% completion rate. Most impressive was his 28 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“You never plan on it happening like that,” Entz said of Lance going 16 games without a pick. “Trey is extremely efficient with the football. You saw today, if he doesn’t like it, he’s going to pull it down. He has the ability to gain valuable yards.”