Before North Dakota State became the juggernaut it is today – with eight Football Championship Subdivision titles in nine seasons – it was left out in the cold.
Eastern Washington, namely linebackers J.C. Sherritt and Zach Johnson, stopped the Bison in their snowy tracks at Roos Field.
Sherritt took down NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen just short of the goal line in overtime of an FCS quarterfinal thriller, Johnson recovered the fumble and the Eagles used a 38-31 win to advance to the semifinals.
But not without a little controversy that still echoes in Fargo.
NDSU, which upset Big Sky co-champion Montana State 42-17 in Bozeman the previous week, believed Jensen was down before he coughed up the ball on the second-and-goal run play.
Referees elected to review the play and Johnson, who is now a police officer in the Tri-Cities, waited for “what seemed like a very long time.”
“We didn’t even think it needed a review,” Johnson said. “Even one of the refs we were talking to said, “Yeah, I didn’t see (Jensen down before the fumble). We had no doubt.”
The call was confirmed, red-clad fans stormed the field and the Eagles earned a winner-to-the-title game at home against Villanova.
North Dakota State has lost one playoff game since.
“(Jensen) was very hurt and felt like he let the team do down,” NDSU running back D.J. McNorton said two years ago while reflecting on the game before the Eagles met the Bison again in the 2018 national title game.
“But that was the spark for the program right there. They went on to have even better years and win championships.”
In his final game in a EWU uniform, star running Taiwan Jones rushed for 206 of his 230 yards in the first half before sustaining a postseason-ending injury.
Jones, now a 10-year NFL veteran on the Buffalo Bills roster, and the Eagles’ salty defense boosted the team to a 14-0 lead.
But the ground-and-pound Bison made it a 17-10 game by halftime. When both teams returned for the third quarter, there was a blizzard in chilly Cheney.
Behind McNorton (124 rushing yards and a touchdown), NDSU stormed back and took a late 31-24 lead.
“We thought we did a pretty good job defensively,” said Johnson, whose twin brother and future NFL safety Matt Johnson was also on the starting defense. “But as the game went on, their physicality and size was a lot to handle.”
NDSU, the third-place team from the Missouri Valley Conference, had a chance to put the game away late in the final 3 minutes, but EWU forced a turnover on downs deep in its territory.
After EWU quarterback and current Canadian Football League star Bo Levi Mitchell (13 of 32 for 141 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions) and his receivers struggled in the conditions, they orchestrated a 2-minute, 90-yard touchdown drive capped off with a 4-yard, over-the-shoulder connection to Nick Edwards to force overtime.
EWU scored on the first play of overtime when Mitchell hit Tyler Hart on a 25-yard scoring strike. Jensen fumbled on the Bison’s ensuing series, determining the dramatic outcome.
“That throw to ‘T-Hart,’ my roommate in college, was awesome,” Johnson said. “Something we still talk about when we see each other.”
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