SB Nation

Robert Weintraub | November 4, 2015

Can the Bison Still Come Back?

In Fargo, they still believe in North Dakota State

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Bison Still Come Back?

In Fargo, they still believe in North Dakota State

by Robert Weintraub


I see these warning signs all across the Dakotas. This is bison (or buffalo to us city folk) country; the prairie grass of the Great Plains an irresistible feast for the herbivores. Despite the advisory, when I spy a couple of the shaggy beasts munching away while hiking in Wind Cave National Park, I can’t help but move closer. They are rare, fascinating creatures, seldom seen outside of Neil Young’s ranch. Besides, they seem so docile, and so intent on their lunch.

As I approach, one of the pair, the bull, looks up at me suddenly and starts to snort. I belatedly notice the one-ton frame, dominated by the muscular hump packed behind those antlers. I’m only about 10 yards away, and my field guide notes bison, which can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, can reach speeds of up to 40 MPH. Before I can even begin to conjure the stampede scenes in “Dances with Wolves,” he lunges toward me. I turn and sprint up the path. I can see the headlines in my mind:

“Dumbass Tourist Trampled By Magnificent Creature; Ignored Signs To Stay Away.”

At the top of a small rise, I muster the courage to look back. I realize the bison has scarcely moved. It was a mock charge. He just flexed enough to send me skittering away, then returned to his meal.

I stand in the warm sun, the adrenaline pouring out of me as nervous sweat. After a while, I get a hold of myself, trudge back through the canyon, get in my car, and drive on. Destination: Fargo, the home of the four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State Bison.

Yes, I had just angered the namesake beast of the team I was coming to investigate for signs of whether the program could win an unprecedented fifth straight national title. I had pissed him off, and then he sent me packing with the merest show of force.

It sounded to me like an apt metaphor for what the football team would likely do to its competition en route to another victory a few days later.

I pull in to town in the wake of Taylor Swift, who rocked the Fargodome two nights earlier. That pop’s foremost superstar would deign to make a tour stop in North Dakota would be stunning just a few years ago, but these days it seems fitting. Indeed, given the popularity of all things North Dakota of late, I half expect to see the prairie landscape littered with production trucks and klieg lights.

Once the “large rectangular blank spot in America’s consciousness,” in the words of native son and legendary TV newsman Eric Sevareid, North Dakota has gone viral in the last few years. The massive oil boom in the Bakken field in the state’s western quarter is so well known there is a network TV show about it, “Blood & Oil,” starring Don Johnson as a sort of prairie J.R. Ewing (locals dismissed it the instant they saw mountains in the background of scenic shots, rather than the state’s trademark buttes). Then there is the murder mystery “Fargo,” a TV show based on the Coen brother’s movie, which in fairness was more about Minnesota (and filmed there, too). John Oliver recently delivered a 20-minute diatribe about the fecklessness of the oil companies in North Dakota. And on and on.

LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images

NDSU football fits neatly into the spotlight. The Bison have become a darling of ESPN, with GameDay traveling to Fargo in both 2013 and 2014 and spotlighting its historic, cinematic downtown area along with the reigning champs. “This is a combination of “College GameDay” meets Wrigley Field meets Champions League soccer intensity,” executive producer Lee Fitting told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last year. “To see the people on the balconies and hanging out of windows and on the rooftops was something that we never get to experience.” ESPN has regularly broadcast the program’s systematic beatings of FBS teams (they’ve won five straight, collecting more than $1 million in the process). Author Chuck Klosterman, who grew up in North Dakota and is the state’s emissary to the popular culture, told me, “The idea of watching the Bison on ESPN was something I would have never even fantasized about growing up—that just seemed impossible.”

But here we are. This season’s opener against Montana was nationally televised on the four-letter network, and the Saturday before I arrive, “SportsCenter” was live from the Fargodome to promote the big clash with Northern Iowa.

“I moved out of North Dakota in 1998,” Klosterman says. “When I told people where I was from, they asked about the weather. That is the ONLY thing anyone asked about, ever. Now, they ask about oil or the Bison.”

NDSU pulled out the game against Northern Iowa in dramatic fashion, winning 31-28 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left from the Bison’s star senior quarterback, Carson Wentz, to redshirt freshman wideout Darrius Shepard, who made a sensational catch in the back of the end zone. The wild victory neatly encapsulated North Dakota State’s roller coaster season. Montana stunned the Bison by scoring on the last play of the game in that season opener, a rude shock to the champs, and a signal that they weren’t going to win another by simply tossing the shoulder pads out on the field.

“It was weird in the locker room afterwards,” Wentz told me. “Our young guys were confused, like ‘What’s this losing feeling?’”

The Bison got things back on track with four straight wins, including rivalry wins over North Dakota and South Dakota State (for the 75-pound Marker Trophy, a replica of chunk of quartzite that once marked the border) before the showdown with UNI. Thus, the locals are upbeat, and this week’s game, the one I’m in town to see, is against weaklings of the University of South Dakota, seen throughout Bison Nation as a welcome opportunity to relax in the pub by a warm fire after the intense three games they’ve just won.

The Montana loss spiked fears that graduation had shredded the defense, and that it would be up to Wentz to spearhead the Drive for Five essentially alone. Fortunately, the quarterback his head coach, Chris Klieman, calls “the best I’ve ever seen at the FCS level” seemed up to the task. Ranked as a top NFL prospect by Mel Kiper, pro scouts have flocked to Fargo all season to witness Wentz’s combination of elite physical skill set and line of scrimmage poise. The Bison have a long tradition of being a power running team that (gasp!) huddles up before plays, but Wentz’s savvy has allowed them to change route concepts and blocking schemes at the line, giving them “way more run/pass options than before,” according to Klieman. Indeed, under Wentz, the Bison lean toward being a pass-first team for perhaps the first time in program history.

Wentz “grew up a Bison,” in the words of his coach. He is from Bismarck, where he was a three-sport star, a 4.0 student, and generally so wholesome he probably peed milk. Wentz’s older brother was a varsity baseball player at NDSU, and there was never any doubt where Carson was coming to play college ball. Wentz’s predecessor at the helm in Fargo, Brock Jensen, won three straight championships, but one program insider told me opposing coaches told their defenses to hit Jensen, but not to knock him out of the game, for fear of having to play against Wentz. After three years of buildup, Wentz took the field in 2014 and promptly broke school records for completions, passing yards, and total offense, then scored the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game. With him at the helm, all things looked possible for the Bison. Even winning another championship with an otherwise ordinary team.

When I meet Wentz after a film session, I’m struck by his size, a full 6′6 and 235 pounds, truly a pro’s frame. The obvious comparison is to Joe Flacco, also a big, strong-armed FCS quarterback (he played at Delaware) with a slow heartbeat on the field. With his auburn hair and black-framed nerd glasses, Wentz also evinces a whiff of Andy Dalton. “I actually grew up loving Brett Favre, he was a competitive son of a gun,” Wentz tells me in the language of the 4-H Club social type he is, rather than the legendarily wild Green Bay gunslinger.

Wentz didn’t even go to the Taylor Swift show.

My first mistake in Fargo was to pronounce “Bison” as bye-son. I was quickly corrected to articulate the nickname as “Bizzon.” One single, slightly slurred syllable. After screwing it up fifteen or so times, I finally hit upon a method for remembering. I conjured Arnold Schwarzenegger saying the name “Dyson” in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” then swapped the ‘D’ for a ‘B.’ Boom—I was no longer an obvious tourist, even if I did sound suspiciously like I was from Salzburg.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dyson, uh, Bison Nation takes things seriously. NDSU sports one of the more passionate fan bases in college football, with intensity and pride hovering at SEC levels. Fans wear Green and Gold everywhere in the fall. There are no pro or major college teams in the roughly 1,500 miles between Minneapolis and Seattle to distract attention, so the Bison are covered and followed locally as such.

Mike McFeely is a longtime Bison watcher and commentator in print and on radio. His daily radio show mostly covers politics, but in football season the focus shifts to NDSU, so much so that McFeely puts me on the air to talk about the story I’m writing. “Sponsors all want a piece of NDSU because of the heat coming off the program,” he says. Tickets for games at the 19,000-seat Fargodome are virtually impossible to come by, and there is a long waiting list for spaces merely to tailgate. There are only about 113,000 people living in Fargo, and fewer than 750,000 in the whole state. Imagine Michigan drawing half a million fans to games in the Big House, and you have a relative context for the passion NDSU football evinces. Bison fans are legendary throughout the Plains for the way they voyage to away games in, well, herds, reminiscent of the acres of buffalo that once coated this country.

“No one travels like us,” insists Bison superfan Mike Wheeler. “No one compares, that’s just a fact. When we went to Minnesota (to play the Gophers in 2011), a couple of their boosters took photos of our tailgate to show those fans how it should be done.” Indeed, many fans have already made their plans, as usual, to travel to Frisco, Texas, the annual site of the FCS National Championship game, or “Bison Weekend,” as they call it in the Lone Star State. Frisco is a second home for Bison Nation, to the point “they were talking about giving us our own zip code,” according to Wheeler. Indeed, the income generated by NDSU fans traveling south to the Dallas suburb is so crucial to the locals that it is practically part of the municipal operating budget. One local bar donated $3,000 to the program, and the Mayor of Frisco was the honorary coin flipper for the Fargodome opener in September. “He was just checking up on his boys,” one fan notes.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
No one travels like us. No one compares, that’s just a fact.—Bisons superfan Mike Wheeler

Part of the appeal is that the fans recognize themselves in the team—hard working, no-nonsense folks who grew up in rural areas, often having come from the farm to play for the Bison (a handful of players went to high schools so small they fielded 9-man teams). “We may have turned into a national brand,” says NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen, “but our core is the upper Midwest, with that work ethic, and blue collar, tough kids.” Brian Schaetz, a senior defensive tackle from Denmark, Wisconsin, is an archetype. At a booster luncheon on the Friday before the South Dakota game, Schaetz relates the story of his “recruitment.” “I was in the barn milking cows with my Dad, who told me NDSU had a good football team and a good ag (ricultural) school,” he told the packed banquet hall. “I thought, ‘Okay, guess I’ll go there.’” Schaetz went on to relate his career goal—not play pro ball, but to “run a grain elevator.”

The tough farm boys don’t come to Fargo to play the wide-open spread offenses that has devoured the rest of college football. NDSU has reliably played power ball for decades, bashing away with fullbacks and multiple tight ends, at least until Wentz took over under center. As former coach Craig Bohl admits, “It’s a challenge to find the old pro-back fullback or H-back. Those guys run counter-culture to what’s going on in football. But you have a kid that grew up on a ranch, drives a pick-up, and has a belt buckle, he doesn’t mind bashing his head into a defensive end 15 to 20 times a game.” The roster isn’t solely constructed of shitkickers unafraid of concussions; the current squad includes more than two dozen African-Americans as well as players from Orlando, Dallas and Oakland, most of whom presumably don’t know what a grain elevator is.

Just like me.

North Dakota State’s legacy of football excellence predates the recent quartet of championships. A Division II powerhouse for decades, the Bison won eight championships at that level, and had a mere two losing seasons between 1964 and 2003, when the program moved up to 1-AA (now FCS). Their record in that stretch was an insane 374-94-4. Generations of Bison fans have lived without enduring a significant stretch of losing, and saw greats like quarterback Jeff Bentrim and defensive lineman Phil Hansen star in the green and gold and go on to professional careers. The opening of the Fargodome in 1993 moved the Bison off the frozen tundra of Dacotah Field into an indoor wonderland that is the small-school equivalent of the NFL Cowboy’s Jerry World. The Dome proved a boon in recruiting and allowed the fans to escape three hours of shivering in the icy Fargo winds.

[Gene Taylor] was very forthright about what had to be done, and then he went out and made it happen.—Phil Hansen

The decision to move up to Division I was very controversial, and fraught with naysayers who didn’t think the program had anything to prove. “I was against the move up,” admits McFeely. “I was being literary and wrote that the president of the University was grasping for Gatsby’s green light that he could never reach. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

“The key was Gene Taylor,” says Hansen, today the analyst for NDSU radio broadcasts, of the former Bison athletic director. “He was very forthright about what had to be done, and then he went out and made it happen.” That meant cajoling the Fargo moneymen into donating enough cash to double the scholarships on offer from 30 to 60 and pump up the budget for the coaching staff and recruiting trips.

The man Taylor hired to coach the team in this brave new world was Bohl, at the time Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. Bohl brought intensity and his pilot’s license to the program, and he flew himself across the plains states to drop in on recruits. He had the Bison competitive in their new environs right away. “I remember we played Valparaiso in our first game,” Hansen says, “and we thumped them. I thought, ‘This is Division I?’”

The Bison truly took a quantum leap during the disastrous tenure of Tim Brewster at Minnesota. An enormous load of players, including star lineman Billy Turner (now with the Miami Dolphins) and safety Craig Dahl (now with the New York Giants), crossed the border to play in Fargo while Brewster fruitlessly chased talent elsewhere.  “Brewster was a buffoon,” says one NDSU insider. “We wanted him to get a 10-year contract.”

Michael Chang/Getty Images
Star lineman Billy Turner was picked in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL draft

The class Bohl assembled at the start of the run in 2011 lost a mere three games in four years. Kyle Emanuel, a defensive end/linebacker who was part of that group and now plays for the San Diego Chargers, told me “the tradition of NDSU definitely attracted me, but it was the passion for the game in Fargo that really sold me. Football means so much to the city, and I wanted to be part of that.” Emanuel says he’s been asked the key to the Bison success numerous times, and that there is no one good answer. “Part of it is great preparation and great coaching, but it’s also a mindset,” he says. “There wasn’t a single game I played in which I wasn’t 100 percent confident we would win.” That confidence is echoed throughout the program by everyone I talk to.

The 2013 edition of the Bison embodied that assurance.  Perhaps the best FCS team ever assembled, the senior-laden group beat bowl-bound FBS stalwart Kansas State, went 15-0, and won its four FCS playoff games by an average of 33 points, stampeding Towson State 35-7 in the finale. With that, Bohl left to take the Wyoming job, leaving the three-time champs under the direction of Klieman, the defensive coordinator under Bohl. There were hard feelings at the time, as Bohl thought Klieman was following him to Laramie before Taylor offered him the top job.

The coaches’ friendship may have been severed, but Klieman proved an able hand, driving the herd to the fourth straight title, even as Taylor, too, moved on, taking the Associate A.D. role at Iowa. “Here I am, with a 0-0 record and, suddenly, a new athletic director,” recalls Klieman. Larsen, an energetic New Yorker fresh from the Stony Brook campus on Long Island, moved to the prairie and quickly established a working relationship with his new coach, like Larsen a former college player. “I didn’t even unpack until after Frisco,” Larsen says. “The pressure was great, but you have to embrace it. We are everybody’s Super Bowl, and success breeds complacency.”

Larsen extended Klieman’s contract the day after the Bison beat Illinois State in the final seconds to win their fourth straight title last January. Still, the football annals are riddled with the carcasses of assistants who sailed on the winds of the previous coach for a year or two only to prove maladroit at sustaining the program long-term. The jury remains out on Klieman’s ability to stamp his own signature in Fargo.

In the big picture, the pressure is equally on Larsen, especially as the point man for the next great question on everyone’s minds in Fargo—should the program step up in class once again and go to the FBS? The oil windfall could certainly underwrite such a move, and the swagger that comes with the riches has locals dreaming big. While there are people in town who roll their eyes at the idea of money going to football and not greater cultural pursuits, many others see a move to top ranks as the ultimate signal that North Dakota has arrived at long last. NDSU is locked into its contract with the Missouri Valley Conference for another five years; unless the program is willing to pay a prohibitive buyout, it will remain for the immediate future. But given the success the Bison has had against the big boys, there is optimism the team could at least compete in the FBS, if not mirror the success of, say, Boise State and be a regular inhabitant of the top 25.

“You always want to be well-positioned for the future,” Larsen says. “The playoff at the FCS level is so special, with 24 teams going head to head for a championship. Going away from that would be hard to do. But there are so many changes ahead, and you don’t know what the landscape will look like.” Several people I talk with opine that the FBS power five conferences will likely pull away and form their own “Division 1-A+” if you will, and that NDSU would fit neatly into the next tier with the likes of the MAC and AAC and Sun Belt teams. Besides, playing the best available competition is the essence of sport; the players and coaches didn’t sign up to settle for a comfy niche. Many observers, including Klosterman, are all for it.

On the other hand, many others wonder, as they did back in 2003, if it is worth the effort. “What’s your endgame?” McFeely says. “Playing Wyoming and Fresno State for a shot at the Meineke CarCare Bowl or whatever? How does that compare with playing a tournament for a national championship?” Hansen says flatly that, “I know we can compete in the MAC,” but also decries the idea of playing all year for the reward of a blah bowl game, with “6,000 fans, 4,000 of them parents” in attendance. Bison Nation loves to make the straight two-day shot down to Frisco, but asking them to regularly make the trip to, say, Shreveport or San Diego is another matter. “You’d have to hire a $2 million head coach and increase the athletic budget significantly,” Hansen adds. “It’s tough to do that and look people in the eye around here.” Some cynics point out that traditional FCS powers like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have moved up in the last decade, leaving a denuded field that the Bison have exploited en route to its dynasty. The FBS wouldn’t be so forgiving.

Ordinarily, the low self-esteem Fargoans have about themselves and their state would also be a handicap. But the combination of oil revenue and football prowess have given North Dakotans a new outlook. “We were just the worst,” McFeely says. “We worried so much about being ‘nice’ and how people saw us. When “Fargo” came out, people were so appalled. ‘We don’t put people in wood chippers!’ But now the chipper [Note—a replica] is a tourist attraction. The team has allowed people to finally embrace Fargo and feel good about themselves.”

That boost has evinced itself in a major upgrade of facilities.  Larsen enumerates them as he sits in his temporary office north of campus, surrounded by warehouses and across the street from a T-shirt company aptly called “FAR FROM NORMAL.” The jewel is a $41 million athletic facility, adjacent to the Fargodome, to house the basketball team and Larsen’s new offices. Larsen is also intent on building an indoor practice home for the football team, and upgrading smaller but showy pieces like the tunnel walk and trophy case. Expansion of the Fargodome itself is by nature limited unless it was torn down and rebuilt anew, but what add-ons that can be done within the foundation of the current building are almost certain to take place.

Ah, yes, the Fargodome, the cacophonous home of the Bison. That’s why I’m here, and on game day the streets all around the building are alive with what Larsen calls “pound for pound the best tailgate in the nation.” The RVs, sporting license plates from across the plains, actually began pulling in Friday night, and judging by the looks in the eyes of some fans, the party started then, too.

Wheeler was one of the very first NDSU tailgaters, predating the Fargodome, “when there were only a handful of us diehards out here drinking and freezing our asses off in the wind.” He points out the original vehicle around which the early Bison tailgate orbited, a 1986 GMC van owned by a man named Dave “Goofy” Gauffin, who once upon a time drove the Bison team bus. The van still makes it out on game days, though Gauffin, who passed in 2007, does not.

Today’s opponent, University of South Dakota, is by all standards no match for the Bison. The Coyotes are 2-3, coming off a 40-21 drubbing by Western Illinois. More to the point, USD has a long, sad history of being pummeled by NDSU. They haven’t won in Fargo since 1978. The last three games between the schools ended in an aggregate 143-7 massacre. The Mount Rushmore boys haven’t won a conference game in 14 tries, dating back to 2013. Meanwhile, the Bison have won a Division I-best 26 straight home games at the Fargodome.

So it’s no surprise that while over 18,000 have turned out for the game, there are some empty seats. After all, pheasant season begins today, and the lure of bagging a few game birds on a picture perfect fall afternoon outweighs watching a blowout, even in football-crazy Fargo.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
NDSU head coach Chris Klieman

Kickoff approaches, and with a tinge of regret we all head indoors for the game. Sadly, there’s no equivalent of Ralphie, Colorado’s mascot Buffalo, racing on to the Fargodome field, but NDSU does have a pretty cool ritual to mark the moment the Bison enter the arena. The lights go down, and thousands of cell phones are raised, their lights creating a rock concert feel. The din cascades off the roof and all across the field. “Players tell me their ears ache and their heads pound for days after the games,” Wheeler says proudly. There’s no way Taylor Swift got this loud of a reaction. South Dakota doesn’t take the field as much as slip in unnoticed—surprisingly, after the playing of the National Anthem.

The game begins on-script. The Fargodome crowd screams and forces a South Dakota false start on the third snap of the game. After a punt, NDSU powers right down the field, as easily as, well, a herd of Bison carving through a pack of Coyotes. Wentz shows his stuff, including a nice throw on a sprint-out under duress and a decisive hot route against a blitz. NFL scouts in the house today include reps from the Seahawks, Patriots, Saints and Chiefs, and they must be impressed. Freshman runner Bruce Anderson takes it in from the 2-yard line, and it’s 7-0.

The Coyotes fumble it away on their next possession, and a sack of quarterback Ryan Saeger ruins their third. Meanwhile, NDSU cranks up the running game, the program staple. Anderson and Chase Morlock rip off good gainers that allow Wentz to play action and find a wide-open Shepard for a 37-yard TD. The first quarter ends 14-0. The Bison are outgaining USD 139-28. The mismatch is nigh, and the folks who are out hunting pheasant look smart.

Then Wile E. Coyote is subbed out, and the big bad wolf enters the game.

Saeger and the Coyotes coaches go old school. Saeger runs over and over behind an unbalanced line powered by an extra lineman. The Bison have no answer for it. Saeger takes it 37 yards on his first try, leading to a short TD pass that halves the deficit. On the next possession, Saeger appears to run again, only to pull up and throw the Auburn-style pop pass to halfback Trevor Bouma, who rumbles 73 yards, setting up a short Saeger plunge that, incredibly, ties the game at 14. The Bison faithful look at each other, not comprehending.

We always beat South Dakota. These guys have lost fourteen straight conference games. We’re tied??

Wentz reassures them with an impressive, run-oriented drive that covers 81 yards and most of the remaining time in the half. The capper is a short TD pass where Wentz appears to change the protection at the line, and hits a wide-open pass in the flat as a result. NDSU leads at the half, 21-14, and Wentz looks good, but there is a disquiet rippling through the Dome.

Are we really going to the edge again this week? This was supposed to be our chance to breathe easy…

The Bi-nasty was built on the power running game. Alas, there is no bellcow back on the roster, and the committee approach has foundered this season. In the third quarter, the Coyotes take away the NDSU strength. Anderson is hurled for a loss on third and two to open the second half, and it gets worse from there. USD also blitzes into Wentz’s scripted rollouts, throwing them off tempo. Three third quarter drives go nowhere, and only an interception and a missed field goal keep the Bison ahead. NDSU misses a field goal of its own to open the final quarter, and David starts looking around for a bigger slingshot.

1978, guys. 1978!!

I could see it coming a million miles away. We talked all week about letdown games, and so that’s on us.—Chris Klieman

To the disbelief of everyone except the guys in the white jerseys with red trim and red helmets (that’s the Coyotes), USD begins to cave in the Bison on the ground. Saeger runs over and over, and the chains keep moving. When they want to mix it up, the Coyotes hand it to Bouma. They embark on a monumental 15-play drive, running it 11 times. No run goes for more than eight yards. The Bison defense is spent from all the body shots. Saeger then fakes a run and flips to a wide-open Drew Potter to tie the game with 4:47 left. As a hint of the conviction on display, USD actually lines up to go for two and the lead before Klieman calls timeout. Instead, South Dakota kicks the PAT for the 21-21 tie.

(jaw hanging open.)

Wait, though—it’s Carson time!

Indeed, this is the kind of situation Wentz has pulled out time and again, including seven days earlier and in the national title game seven months ago. This is the moment for all those intangibles everyone talks about—We expect to win! We know what it takes at the end!—to kick in.

Two runs get short yardage. Wentz tosses an incomplete pass. NDSU punts.


Now the incomprehensible feels inevitable. Saeger bangs for a first down on third and short yet again. On the next play, he is sacked by Bison tackle Nate Tanguay, but when Saeger’s helmet goes flying, so does the ref’s hanky. Fifteen yards are marked off, and the zombie-like crowd suddenly gets passionate, seizing on the call as an excuse for the looming disaster like a wolf snaring a prairie dog.

Saeger inexorably marches the Coyotes into field goal range, and Klieman, stunned himself, doesn’t use his timeouts to preserve the clock. With three seconds left, Miles Bergner trots out to the field. The season has been a disaster for the USD kicker-punter. The third quarter miss was his seventh on the season. “It’s been a rough year, I admit it,” he said after the game. But he’s outpunted NDSU’s All-American punter, Ben LeCompte, during the game, and now he has a chance to undo all those missed kicks.

“I was in the mindset that it was time to give it all and do it for everybody else,” Bergner said later. “Not for me. For my Dad, my family, my family here, my teammates and my coaches. And then I put the ball through.”

Indeed, Bergner calmly hits the 33-yarder, and the Coyotes pour on to the field, their shouts audible to the rafters. “We didn’t get lucky,” Coyotes coach Joe Glenn notes. “They didn’t fumble the ball to us, they didn’t throw interceptions, they didn’t get hurt by the officiating. They just got outplayed by a tough, gritty bunch.”

Nurse, get the paddles and charge to 150!!

After the game, Klieman takes the shocking loss rather well, considering. “I could see it coming a million miles away,” he says. “We talked all week about letdown games, and so that’s on us.” Wentz then comes into the interview room and disagrees. “I thought we were pretty locked in all week. But we gotta work for it.” Wentz looks downcast, speaking earnestly but in bland player-speak that is NFL-ready, noting again and again that he won’t really know what went wrong until he watches the film.

I run into McFeely in the press box after the game, and he calls it the worst loss ever in NDSU history, given the opponent, the setting, the streaks—everything.

Worst. Loss. Ever. And I was here for it!

I skulk out of the Fargodome with my eyes darting about. I’m waiting for an attacker to fly at me from the shadows. I make it to my car and get straight outta Fargo.

As it happens, the crucial film Wentz needs to examine isn’t Xs and Os but an X-ray. On the Monday after the South Dakota game, rumors began filtering out of the Fargodome that Wentz was seriously injured. The worst was confirmed the following day, when it was announced Wentz suffered a broken bone in his throwing wrist and is out for at least the rest of the regular season, if not the postseason.

It’s a hammer blow. Apparently, it happened in the second quarter, and Wentz soldiered on, thinking it was just a sprain. The injury explains, if not excuses, a lot about the upset loss, especially the Bison attack getting stuck in a quagmire in the second half, though Wentz said later it didn’t affect his play.

All is not lost. The new starting quarterback is the fantastically named Easton Stick, a redshirt freshman prep superstar out of Omaha who turned down the Big Ten and several other FBS programs to come to Fargo. He’s been whispered about in much the same way as was Wentz, and in his debut, Stick lived up to the hype, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for a third as NDSU beat Indiana State in the Terre Haute rain.

Then, this past Saturday, Stick threw for a pair of touchdowns and ran for 130 yards as NDSU won another road game, this time at Southern Illinois, 35-29, leaving the Bison 6-2 on the season. For all the drama in Fargo, the NDSU schedule remains manageable, and the postseason likely. All Stick has to do is get the Bison to the dance—once the playoffs start, anything can happen, even a dramatic Willis Reed-like return of Carson Wentz. The Bison remain in the top ten, though this year the FCS has seen a power shift south, with Jacksonville State, Coastal Carolina, and Chattanooga at the top of the polls, and Richmond outslugging James Madison in a battle of contenders—with ESPN GameDay broadcasting live from the JMU campus in Harrisonburg, VA. To win it all again, NDSU will almost certainly have to journey east and win some road games in SEC country.

As I left town, my mind went back to the bison whose peace I disturbed back in Wind Cave. I had come to the Dakotas to discover what made a dynasty tick, and while I was there the team suffered a mind-bending upset and lost its superstar quarterback. Even the Bakken oil fields weren’t immune from my poisonous touch—a well blew out that weekend, spewing crude into a tributary of the Missouri River. Turns out, the endangered animal was more sensitive than I first believed. What I took to be a show of strength—the bison’s mock charge—was, in fact, a sign it was alarmed.

And just maybe, North Dakota State has reason to be worried as well.

About the Author

Robert Weintraub is the author of three books, including the just-released "NO BETTER FRIEND: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII", and is a regular contributor to Slate, the New York Times, Grantland, and many others.