AMES — All you need to know about three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State can be gleaned from its final drive in last season’s 24-21 upset of Kansas State at Manhattan.
The Wildcats clung to a 21-17 lead with 8:58 remaining as the Bison took possession.
Not to K-State coach/wizard Bill Snyder, who immediately told his staff to get the two-minute offense ready.
But NDSU pecked, plowed and persevered, driving 80 yards in 18 plays to score what proved to be the decisive touchdown.
The Bison converted three third downs as they hushed a stunned purple-clad crowd — and left the Wildcats just 28 seconds of that proposed two minutes to work with.
Not enough time.
Quarterback Jake Waters’ desperate first-down pass was picked off and NDSU won its fourth straight game against an FBS foe.
“They played harder than we did,” Snyder said after the game. “They were tougher than we were. They were better coached than we were.”
That’s the Bison Way — and they’ll bring the same attitude, along with several unproven players and a new head coach, to ISU for Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener at Jack Trice Stadium.
It’s not like they have a bunch of all world-class athletes,” Cyclone center Tom Farniok said. “They just do everything right, which you can commend them for, because over the past three years they’ve made almost no mistakes. That’s why they win — because they execute so perfectly. It’s impressive to watch.”
And hard to beat.
NDSU hasn’t lost to an FBS opponent since 2009.
It happened to be Paul Rhoads’ first game as a head coach and the Cyclones won 34-17, despite a headset snafu that caused nerves to fray before quarterback Austen Arnaud and Marquis Hamilton hooked up for a second touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the triumph.
“In a lot of ways the night was a blur,” Rhoads said. “And in a lot of ways it was crystal clear in how it unfolded. It was a lot of fun to be out there and be the guy in charge and it was a lot of fun to see the energy of our fan base and our football team that night. I think there’s similarities between that 2009 squad and this squad right here. There’s not a lot of expectations for the 2014 group and there were certainly not a lot of expectations for the 2009 group. But they were coachable, we’re coachable. They liked to play, we like to play. We’re just really anxious for Saturday to get here and get a benchmark for where we’re at.”
That’s, of course, what Bison coach Chris Klieman seeks to find, as well.
The Waterloo native and former Northern Iowa star will make his head coaching debut in Ames.
And expectations in Fargo are vastly different than what Rhoads faced as he successfully snapped a Gene Chizik-led 10-game losing streak in the 2009 season-opening win.
NDSU has won a FCS record-tying 24 consecutive games.
Despite losing an all-American quarterback and 80 percent of its starting offensive line, it’s ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the preseason FCS polls.
“Last year, when we talked in fall camp, everybody knew who the 22 starters were going into the Kansas State game,” Klieman, the defensive coordinator the past two seasons, said in a news conference. “This year’s a quite bit different. We now know who the starters are but the big difference for this year is some of those kids have never played in this type of an atmosphere and this type of a game. So I think as coaches we’re looking to see how the respond, where last year we know how they were going to respond. … It’s a whole different football team this year, for sure.”
Start with quarterback: Carson Wentz threw all of 30 passes in mostly mop-up duty last season. He completed 22 of them (73.3 percent) and sprinkled in a touchdown.
Then there’s top running back John Crockett, who was the No. 2 option last season.
He still managed to rush for 1,277 yards (6.7 per carry) and 11 touchdowns, but ran behind a veteran line.
That’s not the case now, though Klieman’s pleased with the largely inexperienced group’s progress.
“We’re further along than I thought we’d be,” Klieman said of his O-line, which includes key new contributors Jeremy Kelly and Austin Kuhnert. “We’ll probably play, I would say, seven lineman, maybe eight. But (Kelly and Kunnert) were really the unknown guys coming into fall camp that have really done a nice job.”
Klieman’s defense returns seven of its top nine tacklers.
All three starting linebackers are back, including Carlton Littlejohn, who led the team with 89 tackles last season.
NDSU allowed an FCS-low 11.3 points per game last season and posted three shutouts.
That’s some benchmark — and Rhoads acknowledges it.
“They can beat anybody in America on any given day based on how they’ve executed and based on how extremely hard they play,” Rhoads said. “They are a well-coached, hard-playing football program.”