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Bring On The Bison

You get the feeling that the Big Guy up there knew this would happen - just like last year.

In 2010, Lehigh did something out of the ordinary on their regular season schedule, playing their opener at Drake University in Iowa.

And when the Mountain Hawks had a road playoff game after qualifying for their first FCS Playoff game since 2004, they were sent out to Iowa again to take on the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

In 2011, it wasn't Lehigh that played out at the FargoDome in North Dakota - that would have been Lafayette, who played their season opener further west then the Leopards had ever played.

It means that Lehigh's trip this week out to the FargoDome won't be something completely unfamiliar to them.  They've all played in a dome before.  They know something about travelling to a Missouri Valley football team. And - if they've checked with Lafayette - they'll know a little about what to expect in their trip to the Roughrider state as well.

It's hard to believe that North Dakota State has only been a full Division I program for a few years.

The Bison played at the Division II level for 24 years, only starting the transition to Division I athletics in the 2007 season.

Along with South Dakota State, they made the move from the North Central Collegiate Athletic Conference to the Summit League in basketball in that year.  The Summit, stinging from the defection of Chicago State and Valparaiso, needed new members fast, and were incredibly pleased to be able to get two sleeping giants in the Bison and Jackrabbits.

Almost from the get-go, there seemed to be a lot of similarities between North Dakota State and the hugely popular teams out West in Montana and Montana State.

Obviously, the Bobcats, Griz and the Bison are similar in that they are state flagships, and they reside in two of the coldest States in the Union.

But that's not all that unites them.

Many of their games are carried over the air through local TV, and seem to be available to watch on Saturdays in sports bars and eating establishments across the state.  The Big Ten is still big, of course, but so is Bison football.

And all three schools seem to capture the hearts of their residents in only the way a state flagship can.

Montana and Montana State and North Dakota State all average more than 97% capacity for all of their home games.  And last week in the playoffs - it goes without saying - that trend continued at the FargoDome, with 17,432 fans showing up to watch the Bison beat James Madison 26-14.

Recently, one student relayed his experience about camping in front of the frigid FargoDome to get tickets for playoff games.

Around two in the afternoon on Friday, the six of us met at the south door of the Fargodome after having secured the necessary permission from the Dome's administration and the various entities at NDSU. A pair of tents, about two hundred feet of extension cord, and two clunky space heaters were all that stood between us and the icy December air of eastern North Dakota as we got to work.

A pair of local TV stations swung by to get shots of "Bohlville," and one even made the story their lead-in to the six o'clock news. Once the tents were up and the supplies moved in, the waiting game began.

Along with the amenities necessary of erecting barriers against the swiftly-dwindling temperature, a few students brought with some decidedly non-outdoorsman equipment in the form of an XBox 360 and television set, and as the sun set on Bohlville, the tournament had begun to find out who could play as a chosen Missouri Valley team on NCAA Football '11 and emerge victorious from a competitive bracket.

While Lehigh/Lafayette games sell out almost instantly before the season starts, camping outside in a state where curling or ice fishing could be the most popular outdoor sport shows a level of dedication that is to be respected.

The best part of the story, though, is to come:

The crown jewel of the night was the surprise appearance of one very prominent member of the NDSU community. It wasn't any big event, and no one else came with him, but as we saw the headlights pull up to the tent and heard the footsteps get louder, all of us recognized the voice as he called out "Hey, what are you guys doing out here?"

It was none other than Head Coach Craig Bohl who paid us a visit.

He didn't speak to us overly long, or talk football with us, or share any sage advice that a man of his years might have. He was there for all of two minutes and commented on how crazy we had to be to camp out in below-freezing weather; but those two minutes told us all we needed to know, that our team's coach was more than just a man there to win football games - he took a part in the community, and genuinely considered every student to be a part of the Bison nation that he himself had helped craft with his team's success.

It says quite a bit about the man and the program that coach Bohl paid respect to his fans - but didn't mince any words, either.

Bohl, a former reserve defensive back at Nebraska under legendary head coach Tom Osborne, actually had a stint coaching on defense with the Bison in 1984 at the Division II level, before returning as head man in Fargo after stops at Wisconsin, Rice, and eight years at Nebraska under Osborne.  In his and Osborne's final year at the helm of the Cornhuskers in 1997, they won the only BCS championship in either of their storied careers.

As head man, too, Bohl has made a great impression on the FCS community as well.

Since becoming head man in 2003, Bohl sports a 72-31 record, a 77% winning percentage that any Division I coach would drool over.  Not only that, though, he's guided his Bison to a multitude of great Division I wins as well that reverberate well outside the state of North Dakota.

He has a 2-1 record against Minnesota - yes, Virginia, that Minnesota, of the Big Ten - and he probably should have been undefeated against the Golden Gophers, losing a 10-9 heartbreaker to them in 2006.  (Their wins against Minnesota weren't that close, either beating them 27-21 in 2007 and 37-24 this year.)

Last year, they beat Kansas of the Big XII 6-3, as well as pounding Montana State 42-17 in the playoffs in Bozeman, Montana.   (And in the hearts of many Bison fans, they're still wondering how QB Brock Jensen's quarterback sneak was ruled a fumble in a heartbreaking, controversial 38-31 overtime loss to eventual national champion Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.)

"I've been in both the bowl system and in the playoffs and I can tell you the playoffs are fun," Bohl said in his pregame press conference this week. "You have an opportunity to keep on playing if you win, and if you don't, you're at least playing great football teams, and giving it your best shot. Lehigh is a great football team and I expect a great game."

Since that loss, Bohl's Bison team powered through their schedule in 2011, going undefeated through the first nine weeks of the season before falling 27-24 to Youngstown State.

And this year, they want to go a lot further than the quarterfinals.

Bohl made note of his fans' efforts last Saturday, calling them the "12th man" and formally thanking them for creating a "great atmosphere".

"They raised the bar and made a difference in the game," he said.

They sure did - with crowd noise that, by some estimations, reached 117 decibels when James Madison lined up on offense.

Their theme song?  You won't be surprised.  AC/DC's "Thunderstruck".


All Lehigh fans hope that their trip to the FargoDome resembles their trip in 2010 to the UNIDome rather than Lafayette's trip to the FargoDome the first week of the season.

From the Morning Call's Paul Reinhard's trip to the FargoDome this September, the Leopards endured a 42-6 stampede from the Bison, where they were outgained 416 yards to 198.

Concerning North Dakota State, Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani said, "We think we played one of the best teams in the country. I guarantee you it's the best defense we're going to see all year. That doesn't mean we're going to play any better [ourselves], but I can tell you that's the best defense we'll see; I'll go out on that limb, and no disrespect for anybody we're going to play." 
Lafayette went into the hostile environment of the Fargodome, where all but about 100 of the 17,023 spectators backed the Bison, which was ranked No. 11 in preseason Football Championship Subdivision polls.
Recently, the Express-Times' Michael LoRe caught up with Tavani and asked him about the experience of playing in that hostile environment.

Upon landing at Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., in early September, Lafayette College football coach Frank Tavani remembers looking out the plane’s window. 
Sure he saw the acres of flat grass and downtown in the distance, but a building caught his attention — the Fargodome. 
“When you land and taxi to the terminal, you look out the one side and see it,” Tavani said. “You can’t miss it. It’s an impressive, imposing facility. 
“Our game was sold out,” Tavani said of the 42-6 loss on Sept. 3. “Their student body is pretty much behind your bench. They do a great job. It’s a big-time atmosphere; there’s no other way to describe that and it’s that way every game. The (artificial turf) surface is the thing that’s the most different. The quickness and speed of the game was up a couple of notches.”

North Dakota State will be sporting their retro-looking autumn gold and green pants this weekend.  Thunderstruck will be blaring on the loudspeakers.  And this FCS playoff game is going to be played fast and loud.


steelr7 said…
Great article. Looking forward to the matchup! Go Bison!

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