MCFEELY: Bison's 'unprecedented' streak of five titles finally ends
FARGO — A cool scene unfolded outside the North Dakota State locker room in the lower level of the Fargodome after the Bison lost to James Madison.
NDSU's Brad Ambrosius, heading toward the postgame press conference, spotted the four James Madison players who just completed their remarks to the media.
"Hey, guys. Great job. Congratulations," Ambrosius said to Dimitri Holloway, Bryan Schor, Khalid Abdullah and Matt Frank.
The four Dukes returned the compliments. Abdullah reached out to shake Ambrosius' hand and they embraced, again congratulating one another. Ambrosius and the other three Dukes all shared hugs, handshakes and praise.
Other Bison players making their way into the locker room also congratulated the James Madison players, who again returned the praise.
It was a genuine moment between college athletes who had just battled for three hours on the field. The Dukes were elated. Ambrosius and the Bison were disappointed.
But, as Bison coach Chris Klieman said, "The sun will rise tomorrow."
One of the most amazing streaks in college football, perhaps in all of sport, is over. James Madison defeated NDSU 27-17 on Friday, Dec. 16, in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals. The Bison's run of five consecutive national titles is finished.
"I hope you all appreciate what we've seen," Klieman said. "It's hard to do, guys. And somehow these guys got back there five times. It's unprecedented in college football."
The Bison and their fans had made it an annual pilgrimage since January 2012, winning playoff games in the dome to qualify for the title game in Frisco, Texas. And then when they got there, NDSU took care of business by winning the championship. Five times. In a row. It might never happen again.
"It's the best body of work you'll ever see in college football history," Klieman said.
It's hard to argue with the coach. About 125 teams begin the FCS season with hopes of winning a title. Realistically, only a dozen or two have a real chance. But year after year, the Bison took everybody's best shot and kept winning. Georgia Southern, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, Illinois State, New Hampshire, Richmond, South Dakota State, Montana, Northern Iowa, Wofford, Furman — they all got a shot (or two) at knocking the Bison off their playoff perch over the last six seasons and none could do it.
Until, that is, James Madison swaggered into Fargo with no fear and a whole bunch of talent. Dukes coach Mike Houston talked all week about how his team would match up with NDSU, but until a team showed it could bump the Bison it was hard to believe. A raucous bunch 18,282 fans saw it with their own eyes. They believe now.
NDSU had won 18 straight playoff games in the dome and 23 in a row overall since the championship run began in 2011. The five victories away from the dome, of course, came in the title game in Frisco, where thousands of Bison fans migrated and turned the Dallas suburb into one big beer-swilling party.
They'll be denied the chance in early January. Instead, James Madison will take on the winner of Youngstown State-Eastern Washington. Somewhere, the Frisco mayor and bar owners are weeping. All those yellow-wearing, beer-drinking, money-spending Bison fans won't be coming to their town.
The champs didn't go quietly, nor did their fans. James Madison came out and tried to deliver a knockout in the first half, taking a 17-0 lead as Abdullah ran wild. But a touchdown just before the half pulled the Bison within 17-7 and they mustered enough to tie it 17-all with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
But seemingly the smallest of mistakes — a five-yard offsides penalty on Ambrosius — allowed James Madison's Tyler Gray to kick a career-long 45-yard field goal for a 20-17 lead. The dagger came later, on Schor's 25-yard TD pass to John Miller with 6:59 left in the fourth quarter.
The Bison kept plugging, but couldn't move the ball. When Easton Stick's fourth-down pass attempt to RJ Urzendowski fell harmlessly to the turf at the 30-yard line in the southwest corner of Gate City Bank Field with 57 seconds left, NDSU's last hope disappeared.
The streak was over. A few moments later, when the clock drained to all zeroes, the fans who remained rose to their feet and cheered as the Bison players walked off the field. The fans who made such a difference in these games, even in this losing effort, appreciated what they were witnessing.
"Just being up here in Fargo, you can see it's a special place. ... It's a special place for college football," said Schor, James Madison's quarterback. "For us to come in and win here means a lot."