If North Dakota State was going to lose, this was an appropriate way to do it.
The Bison had won their three straight national championships by snaring opponents in an extra-large bear trap, out-scoring previous foes by a combined 57-3 after halftime over the past three years. And just like Sam Houston State (twice) and Towson before them, it appeared North Dakota State had Illinois State trapped.
North Dakota State took a 10-7 lead into the break and immediately pushed the lead to six after the Redbirds failed to cover the opening kickoff at their own 19. Running back John Crockett pushed the lead to 20-7 at the 7:28 mark, and suddenly the Bison’s second-half dominance had reached 67-3. But after four consecutive punts, and only one drive of longer than four plays, Illinois State’s offense sparked to life.
Illinois State moved 66 yards, capped by a 41-yard pass from Tre Roberson to James O’Shaugnessy, to pull within 20-14 with 2:11 to go in the third quarter. North Dakota State pushed the lead to 23-14 to open the final frame, but Illinois State immediately added another touchdown, needing only six snaps to race 84 yards.
Trailing 23-21 and facing a potential do-or-die 3rd-and-8 at their own 35 with less than three minutes to play, Illinois State sacked Bison quarterback Carson Wertz, forcing a 4th-and-14. North Dakota State’s punted rolled into the end zone, netting the Bison only 21 yards on the boot. Red-hot Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson (157 passing yards, 161 rushing, four touchdowns) handled the ensuing drive by himself, completing 2-of-4 passes for 22 yards and then taking a 3rd-and-1 zone-read keeper to the house for 58 yards.
Within a span of 15 minutes and change, Illinois State had turned a 20-7 deficit into a 27-23 lead, and put North Dakota State’s quest for a four-peat in the danger zone.
But as they have so many times before (and on this playoff run in particular) North Dakota State played its best when it mattered the most. Wertz moved the Bison 78 yards in 61 seconds, including a key 33-yard completion on 3rd-and-10 to give the Bison a first-and-goal at the five with under a minute to play. Wertz (277 passing yards, 87 rushing, two touchdowns) darted in on the next snap to regain the lead with 37 seconds remaining- but Adam Keller’s PAT try was blocked, meaning an Illinois State field goal gave the Redbirds the win.
Illinois State moved to its own 44, looking for one completion before a game-deciding Hail Mary, but Esley Thornton stepped in front of a Roberson pass with eight seconds to play, and North Dakota State’s four-peat was secure. North Dakota State 29, Illinois State 27.
For head coach Chris Klieman its a national championship in his very first season, securing the first four-peat in either FBS or FCS. And for the outgoing Bison seniors, their careers close with more national championships (four) than losses (three).