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North Dakota State defeats James Madison for eighth FCS football title

Now this was a perfect ending for North Dakota State, with its redshirt freshman quarterback and the senior safety in his final game after first wanting to be a Bison quarterback.

Trey Lance ran for 166 yards, with a clutch 44-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and James Hendricks had a game-clinching interception after an earlier touchdown run on a fake field goal as the Bison beat James Madison 28-20 on Saturday for their eighth Football Championship Subdivision national championship, and the first 16-win season in any division since Yale in 1894.

“To go out on top as a senior is an incredible feeling,” said Hendricks, who was a third-string quarterback before moving to defense a sophomore in 2017. “That’s what I’ll remember. I just feel so fortunate.

The Bison (16-0) stretched their FCS-record winning streak to 37 in a row while winning their record eighth championship in the division — all in the last nine seasons. They also won five NCAA Division II titles from 1983 to 1990.

After stopping Lance short on fourth and two at its 36-yard line with 2:51 left, James Madison (14-2) drove to the three before Hendricks picked off the pass by Ben DiNucci at the goal line.

Hendricks said it was a play the Bison expected. “I just left my guy and knew that they were going to throw it, and trusted that he was going to throw to the flat, and not the guy that I’m supposed to cover,” he said.

When asked how common that was, Matt Entz, the first-year Bison head coach who was their defensive coordinator the previous five seasons, smiled and said, “I’m glad he did in that situation.“

Lance’s 44-yard scramble touchdown came on a third-and-23 play to open the fourth quarter and put the Bison up 28-13. He dropped back to pass, found no one open, and when “the Red Sea just kind of parted” took off running to the end zone.

“He’s very dynamic,” All-American defensive end Ron’Dell Carter said. “For him to be that young, that calm in the pocket is pretty crazy.”

And that really wasn’t even Lance’s highlight run.

On the final play of the first quarter, Hall scrambled and ran right into middle linebacker Landan Word, who tried to yank him down before Lance suddenly popped up and lunged forward several more yards with the help of his lineman in what looked more like a rugby scrum.

Riley Stapleton’s five-yard touchdown catch with seven minutes left was his second of the game. He also had two touchdown catches in the national title game two years ago for the Dukes in another loss to North Dakota State. That was a season after they won a semifinal game at the Fargodome and then beat Youngstown State for the title.

While Lance was only six-for-10 passing for 72 yards, he has now attempted 289 passes for the Bison without ever throwing an interception. He ran a season-high 30 times in the finale.

Lance succeeded Easton Stick, whose 49 wins at NDSU made him the winningest FCS quarterback, while also setting school records for total yards, passing yards and total touchdowns. Stick had followed Carson Wentz.

Before Hendricks’ 20-yard touchdown run after lining up as the holder for a field goal gave NDSU a 21-10 halftime lead, North Dakota State also scored in the second quarter when wide receiver Phoenix Sproles swept around and faked a reverse handoff on way to a 38-yard touchdown run.

“Honestly, I don’t really think they won that game. Honestly, I think we lost it,” said DiNucci, who finished 22-for-33 passing for 204 yards. “Trick plays. They’ll probably tell you we out-physicaled them.”

The Dukes, with first-year coach Curt Cignetti, got off to an impressive start, going 86 yards in 17 plays and taking half of the first quarter for their opening drive. Stapleton’s five-yard touchdown catch gave them their only lead before NDSU also scored on its first possession.

Make it eight for eight for the Bison for championships won when making it from Fargo to Frisco. Their eighth appearance in the FCS championship game matched the most with Georgia Southern, which won six of its title games. The only two Division I winning streaks longer than NDSU’s belong to Washington (40, from 1908 to 1914) and Oklahoma, which won a record 48 in a row from 1953 to 1957.

North Dakota State will go for another win over a Power Five team in its Sept. 5 season opener at Oregon. The Bison have wins over Kansas State, Iowa State and No. 13 Iowa since 2013.

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