If North Dakota State was a sleeping giant, Eastern Washington woke it up.
The Bison have stomped on the Football Championship Subdivision since.
Before NDSU began one of college football’s most dominating runs, green-and-gold-clad players stood in agony on the snow-covered red turf of Roos Field in the 2010 FCS quarterfinals, refusing to believe that quarterback Brock Jensen coughed up the game-deciding fumble in overtime just short of the goal line.
Eastern Washington’s dramatic 38-31 triumph over NDSU – then a program seven years removed from NCAA Division II status – springboarded the Eagles to a national title weeks later.
A motivated Jensen and the experience-heavy Bison went on to win the next three national championships, the start of a dynasty that saw FCS titles begin to flow like the black gold pumping out of the the state’s Bakken oil fields.
When top-ranked NDSU (14-0) faces EWU (12-2) on Saturday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, in the title round, it will be looking to capture its FCS-record seventh title in eight years.
The 2010 meeting is still cringeworthy for NDSU purists, many who believe the Bison would already own seven titles if Jensen’s controversial fumble call in Cheney was overturned.
EWU fans – many who stormed the field after a referee announced that the call stood – believed the ball squirted out of Jensen’s hands before he was down.
Eight years later, the programs are the gold standard of the decade, often producing NFL- and Canadian Football League-caliber players.
Former EWU star running back Taiwan Jones – now a veteran captain for the Buffalo Bills – saw his college career end with a foot injury in the 2010 NDSU game, which derailed the Eagles in the second half.
EWU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell – now a two-time CFL MVP and Grey Cup champion with the Calgary Stampeders – struggled before orchestrating a 90-yard, overtime-forcing drive in the final minute, adding a touchdown on the first drive of OT that proved to be difference.
Linebacker and former Pullman star J.C. Sherritt – one of the best linebackers in the CFL with Edmonton Eskimos – forced Jensen’s fumble that ended the game.
Sherritt and other EWU and NDSU players from that game took time to reflect on the wildest, heart-stopping endings of their careers.
The first year on its famed red turf, top-ranked EWU shared the Big Sky Conference title with Montana State (the Bobcats handed EWU its only conference loss) before dispatching Southeast Missouri 37-17 in the second round. NDSU had a .500 record in the Missouri Valley Conference, finishing third and earning an at-large berth, its first playoff berth as a FCS member. The Bison went on to upset Montana State 42-17 in Bozeman in the second round.
The quarterfinal was billed as a meeting between a dynamic EWU offense and turnover-forcing defense against a tough, ground-and-pound NDSU squad that yielded few points.
Brandon Kaufman (EWU wide receiver, 2009-2012): “We had this feeling that if we were going to win a national title, it was going to be that season. We didn’t know much about North Dakota State, since that was their first bit of a run. We knew they were good, though, because of how they beat Montana State. Now it’s crazy to look back and think that we were one of two FCS team to beat NDSU in the playoffs over the last nine seasons.”
Cole Jirik (NDSU defensive end, 2010-13): “That NDSU team had one of the its best lines ever. It was a team capable of winning the title, but back then, we weren’t going into the season with a championship-or-bust attitude like the program has today. And looking back at that EWU team, it had some of biggest names in the FCS in Bo Levi Mitchell and Taiwan Jones. Great players.”
Jones leads EWU to 14-0 lead
Arguably the best running back in the country that season, Jones rushed for 203 yards in the first half, including a 69-yard touchdown that gave the EWU a 14-0 lead going into the second quarter.
D.J. McNorton (NDSU running back, 2008-2011): “EWU had a prolific offense, man. Taiwan Jones. That dude was incredible. He had a long touchdown run to start that game, and we knew we were in for a real test.”
Greg Herd (EWU wide receiver, 2009-2013): “Taiwan was running circles around everyone.”
A blizzard of misfortune
A pair of second-quarter NDSU field goals and a McNorton touchdown run cut into the cushion of EWU, which led 17-16 at halftime. When both teams returned to the field to start the third quarter, heavy snow had blanketed the field and continued to fall. The Eagles went on to have five second-half turnovers and Jones went down early in the fourth quarter with a broken foot.
Matt Johnson (EWU safety, 2008-2010): “We come out, and there’s a blizzard. Then NDSU kind of wore on us. We played great at the beginning, but then their linemen got to our linebackers quick.”
Kaufman: “The snowfall really stifled our offense. We had a lot of turnovers. Bo Levi didn’t have the greatest game, I don’t think I even caught a pass, but I think I dropped a touchdown pass. When Jones went out of the game, that really turned the tide.”
Jirik: “If we don’t knock (Jones) out of the game, I don’t think it comes down to controversial fumble.”
The Bison grind out a late lead
Tied at 24 for most of the fourth quarter, NDSU gained its first lead when Jensen hit McNorton on a short screen and rumbled 21 yards for a touchdown with less at the 5:51 mark.
McNorton: “Our defense was doing its thing and our line was giving me some running lanes. Honestly, when I scored on that screen pass I thought the game was over. We had the momentum and EWU was having trouble moving the ball.”
Herd: “There was a point in the fourth quarter where I lost some hope.”
Sherritt (EWU linebacker, 2007-10): “NDSU came out and practically dominated us in the second half. But the reason that was the greatest team I played on wasn’t just the talent, but the unwavering belief [that] no matter what happened to us, we would find a way to win.”
The late comeback
NDSU had a chance to put the game away late in the final three minutes, but EWU forced a turnover on downs deep in its territory. Mitchell (13 of 32 for 141 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions) saved his best for last on a 2-minute, 90-yard touchdown drive capped off with a 4-yard, over-the-shoulder connection to Nick Edwards to force overtime. The drive was boosted by two fourth-down conversions and a pass interference call on NDSU.
Herd (After making the key fourth-down catch): “I didn’t even know it was fourth down. I was just playing. It wasn’t until the next day I understood the magnitude of that catch. Then Nick came up big.”
Kaufman: “We hadn’t done anything that half, but we we were still confident we were going to go down and score. All of our receivers felt like they were the No. 1 receiver that year, so none of them had a problem stepping up.”
EWU scored on the first play of overtime when Mitchell hit Tyler Hart on 25-yard scoring strike. The Bison marched to EWU’s 4 on their next series, but on second-and-goal Jensen tried to turn the corner on an option play and fumbled after being hit by Sherritt and Allen Brown. Linebacker Zach Johnson recovered.
Johnson: “We were a bend-but-don’t-break defense that year [that] forced a lot of turnovers, and that was one of them. It was a close call. I know NDSU fans like to say it wasn’t a fumble, but it definitely was.”
Sherritt: “That is what you dream about as a defensive player. We knew with the score that we couldn’t bend very much, or they would be in range. Zach did what he always does and makes a couple All-American plays in the biggest possible moment. Then, to stop them a yard short to win it all was a dream.”
McNorton: “I remember coach taking me out, because I wanted to score. But we went with an option play with Brock that had a lot of success. It was an option, but he usually just keeps it. After the play, I remember him screaming, ‘I’m down! I’m down! I’m down!’ ”
The game appeared to be over, but video of Jensen’s disputed fumble was automatically reviewed by NCAA replay officials, who didn’t overrule the call.
Sherritt: “When the review happened, it seemed from our vantage point we got it. Then the delays and remeasuring started to happen and the longer it went, the more uneasy we all felt. Luckily, in the biggest game of our lives, they found a way to make the right call.”
Jirik: “It felt like forever. We’re getting told by our coaches in the box that he was down, and we were planning our next defensive series, then boom, our season was over.”
Johnson: “That was seriously the longest period of my life, waiting for that call. My brother (Zach) and (Sherritt) hung around and waited, then it was confirmed. It was pretty cool.”
McNorton: “There was controversy in that call. Brock was very hurt and felt like he let the team down, but that was the spark for the program right there. They went on to have even better years and win championships.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.