As North Dakota State was coming off a 3-8 season in 2009 and the Bison were gearing up for the 2010 campaign, I remember asking Craig Bohl on Media Day what realistic expectations were for the program that season. “Do you think you guys can be a playoff team, Craig?” I asked.
His response was something along the lines of "I think that’s a realistic expectation for us ... to be a playoff team."
Of course, I was skeptical.
Bohl made a change at defensive coordinator, elevating Scott Hazelton and removing Mike Breske. There were some redshirt freshmen in the program we knew very little about. Names included Ryan Drevlow, Andrew Grothman, Tyler Gimmestad, Cole Jirik, Leevon Perry, Sam Ojuri, Marcus Williams and Brock Jensen. There were also some true freshmen on the roster like Ryan Smith, Billy Turner and Grant Olson that were forced into action immediately. Veterans like D.J. McNorton, Preston Evans, Matt Anderson, Matt Gratzek, Warren Holloway, Matt Veldman, Coulter Boyer and Paul Cornick returned and had proven to be solid players. After throwing junior college transfers Josh Gatlin and Chad Wilson into the mix, that made up the bulk of the 2010 Bison.
But could this ragtag bunch really make the playoffs a year after the most disappointing season in the Division I era?
The season started at the University of Kansas under first-year Head Coach Turner Gill, who replaced Mark Mangino. The Jayhawks had some new pieces as well, namely at quarterback with the departure of Todd Reesing. The Bison were still heavy underdogs but hung in there with good defense and two Ryan Jastram field goals, squeaking by to win it 6-3 despite punting 13 times and mustering just 168 yards of total offense.
From there, it was a roller coaster ride. There was the 16-9 loss at Northern Iowa, where the Panthers sacked NDSU QB Jose Mohler 11 times. Yes, ELEVEN! Asking Bohl about the pass protection after that game was fun, let me tell you. There was also the 3-0 loss at Missouri State to end the season, with 50-mile-per-hour winds in some of the strangest conditions I have ever experienced.
The Bison did have some memorable wins that season as well, including a road victory at Youngstown after a big catch by Justin Howard in the final minute. There were two other big wins in November against Southern Illinois and South Dakota State. At 7-4, NDSU was a bubble team, but with the FBS win against KU, it ultimately got this group into the 20-team field playoff field for the first time in the D-I era.
After a relatively easy victory over Robert Morris at home in the opening round, the Bison went on the road as underdogs at Montana State and punished the Bobcats, winning 42-17 and racking up 376 yards rushing.
Just like that, this team was playing its best football heading into the national quarterfinals on December 11 at Eastern Washington. I’ll never forget that game. It snowed off and on so the red turf at Roos Field was even more hideous than it normally is. It was surreal to watch everything unfold.
There were some huge momentum swings in that contest both ways, with explosive plays from both squads, some big miscues on special teams and a wild fourth quarter that I can still remember plain as day all these years later. NDSU had the Eagles all but beat, with EWU facing a 4th-and-15 in their own territory, trailing by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell completed a 16-yard pass to Greg Herd to keep the game alive. Leevon Perry forced a fumble later during that drive, but Mitchell was able to get back on top of it. If either of those plays go the other way, the Bison were moving on to the national semifinals against Villanova, who was also unseeded. But with 23 seconds left, a 4-yard touchdown pass tied the game up 31-31 and sent it to overtime.
Mitchell and the Eagles all of a sudden had the momentum, scoring on the first play in OT and grabbed the lead 38-31. NDSU was able to get the ball inside the EWU 5-yard-line on its possession, but on 2nd and goal, Brock Jensen was stretching for the goal line and lost the football, with the Eagles recovering. The play was reviewed, and although Jensen looked down, there was not enough evidence on video review. The play was upheld and the game was over.
That ended the first season for North Dakota State in 2010. It was an important turnaround for the program despite it ending in gut-punch fashion. It showed that the Bison were on the upswing and that they were going to once again be a team to contend for a national title. Only Defensive Tackles Coach Nick Goeser remains on staff from that turnaround season.
Since that fumble and heart-wrenching loss, the Bison are 123-8 with seven national championships. Just take a moment to think about how ridiculous that record is. Eight losses in the past nine seasons that includes two 33-game winning streaks.
Seniors like Anderson, Gratzek, Gatlin, Freddie Banks, John Prelvitz, Lee Vandal, Landon Smith and others never got a national championship ring, but it’s still a senior class that should be remembered. NDSU had to turn things around and prove what kind of program it could be after two very disappointing years in 2008 and 2009. It gave the returning players some momentum and belief going into the offseason before the 2011 national title run, where this incredible decade of dominance got rolling.
It’s hard to believe the decade is now almost over, with the program on its third different head coach and fourth different starting quarterback. Yet, it’s still the same old Bison.