Tough man contest: It's not easy going through Bison football program

FARGO -- Physical football. It's a phrase that has been a staple of the North Dakota State football during its run of FCS excellence, almost to the point of it being accepted like the school's nickname.

North Dakota State center Austin Kuhnert celebrates Easton Stick's 14-yard touchdown run against South Dakota State Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, during the FCS playoff quarterfinals at the Fargodome.David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO - Physical football. It's a phrase that has been a staple of the North Dakota State football during its run of FCS excellence, almost to the point of it being accepted like the school's nickname.

A 20-play drive that took 12 minutes off the clock against South Dakota State? That's physical football.

A defense that ranks third in the FCS in fewest points allowed at 15.8 per game? That's physical football.

The title of its offense, West Coast, that is based on a "power" running game? Again, physical football.

So on that account, the definition is as wide as there are the variety of plays in a game. Ask each Bison player or coach and they would all probably give you some variation of a different answer. They'll point to the way they practice, a concept called "double repping" where players will compete against each other - usually the offense vs. the defense - on both sides of the field.


In other words, there is no player standing around watching a scrimmage.

They'll point to the strength and conditioning coach, Jim Kramer, who preaches toughness every day.

"We challenge our guys every day to lead the country in physicality," said head coach Chris Klieman. "If you do that, you have an opportunity to be successful on Saturday."

In this case, on Friday, Dec. 16. That's when the Bison host James Madison University in the FCS semifinals at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

When it comes to physical football, it promises to be a headknocker because that is the attitude the Dukes are bringing to the field, also.

"We're not a finesse team," said JMU head coach Mike Houston. "We're a physical football team, offensively, running the football. We're physical up front on the offensive front. Defensively, we've become a very physical defensive front. We've become a group that plays with a tremendous amount of intensity and passion."

Houston is in his first year at the school, taking over a team that had an emphasis on the spread offense the prior two years. Houston said one of his priorities was to change the mindset of what a physical style of football is.

"There is not anything about us that equates to finesse, soft, anything along those lines," he said. "Our kids, when they take the field, are going to hit you right in the face and they're going to come at you as hard as they can. That is a mindset that has to be taught and that is a mindset that has to be demanded on a daily basis. Our players have bought into that. That is what North Dakota State is as well."


Nowhere is that more evident at NDSU than in the offensive line. Without size and strength in those five positions, a power running game would be non-existent. In this year's case, the Bison also have experience with seniors Landon Lechler and Jack Plankers on the right side and Zack Johnson at left guard. Junior center Austin Kuhnert is a three-year starter.

"It's something that this entire football team, especially the offensive line, takes a special pride in, especially when we get to this part of the season, " said offensive line coach Conor Riley. "Teams have played 13, 14 games and it's something we have to leverage. It's ultimately imposing your will on the defense and that was something I thought we were able to do this past Saturday."

NDSU averaged 5.8 yards per carry against SDSU and had the ball nearly 41 minutes of the 60-minute game.

"It's displacing the line of scrimmage, moving the ball in their side of the territory every play," Plankers said.

It's a mental state of mind, Plankers said, that is almost instilled in players during the recruiting process. Asked how players get through it and he said he didn't even know where to start with that question.

"It's a tough program, it's going to take a mentally-tough human being to get through it," Plankers said.

In 2015, Forum News Service did a story on Plankers that included his routine that summer of weightlifting at 5:30 a.m., driving to Wahpeton, N.D., to work an eight-hour shift for an internship and driving back to Fargo to run and condition with his teammates at night.

He's also had to overcome a few injuries. How many?


"It depends on where you draw the line," he said with a smile. "I've been hurt a few times."

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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