North Dakota State just went undefeated again. In 2018, the Bison went 15-0, after which head coach Chris Klieman left for a bigger job at Kansas State and starting quarterback Easton Stick was drafted by the Chargers. In 2019, they went 16-0, thanks to an impressive breakout season from redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance. Lance was ignored by most power-conference schools as a quarterback prospect, but now stands to follow in Carson Wentz’s footsteps as an NDSU QB selected close to the top of the NFL draft. Just about every 2021 mock projects Lance to go among the top 10 picks in next year’s class.
So, this year’s undefeated season: In 2020, North Dakota State went 1-0. After the university canceled its season in August amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Bison scheduled a single game, for last Saturday, against Central Arkansas, a school best known for having a purple and gray field and being the site of Scottie Pippen’s ridiculous growth spurt. The Bears have been willing to play just about anyone in spite of their season also getting canceled, and agreed to come to Fargo for a game possibly scheduled to boost Lance’s draft stock. Saturday, I watched the Bison beat the Bears 39-28, with Lance accounting for four touchdowns. This college football season has been deeply strange—so strange that my post from three weeks ago listing all the strange things about it has already been rendered obsolete by new batches of strange things. But perhaps nothing has been stranger than NDSU’s single-game season. In some ways, the game’s importance was entirely self-contained: Neither team was competing for a championship, so winning on Saturday was all that mattered, especially for the team literally playing only one game this fall. But it was impossible to watch it without thinking of Lance’s future, far from Fargo.
Taylor Swift sings about the Last Great American Dynasty as a thing of the past, but clearly she isn’t up on North Dakota State football. The Bison have completely dominated competition in the FCS, the second tier of college football. NDSU has won three straight national championships and eight of the past nine, only slipping up in 2016. It’s 31-0 over the last two seasons and 128-8 since 2011. The Bison have kept chugging despite their last two head coaches (Klieman and Craig Bohl) being poached by FBS teams and their last two quarterbacks (Stick and Wentz) being drafted into the NFL. Despite having fewer allotted scholarships than FBS teams and having a smaller budget than any power-conference school, the Bison have defeated the past six top-tier teams that they’ve played. In 2016, I wrote an article begging FBS schools to stop scheduling the Bison, and generally they have listened. Oregon was scheduled to play NDSU this year, but the game was called off after the Pac-12 postponed its football season.
Every FCS conference made the decision to postpone its football regular season. They had little reason to play this fall without fans in the stands; unlike FBS conferences, FCS leagues don’t have billion-dollar television deals. Still, North Dakota State is the favorite to win a fourth straight title, because the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to have an FCS spring championship, with the playoffs taking place from April to May. (That’s right, folks: This college football season is NINE MONTHS LONG.) However, FCS teams were given the ability to schedule one-off fall games, and a handful did, because FBS programs are often willing to pay FCS teams hefty fees to participate in tune-ups. For example, Houston Baptist got $350,000 to play North Texas, $400,000 to play Texas Tech, and an undisclosed (but probably similar) figure to play Louisiana Tech. The Huskies—who play in a stadium that shares a sideline with a CVS parking lot—took the cash and lost all three games, although they put a pretty good scare into Texas Tech.
But NDSU’s game against Central Arkansas didn’t fit the bill of most other FCS games this fall. The Bison didn’t play because they were getting paid to fill out a big-money school’s schedule; they specifically wanted to play one game this fall against another FCS team. In fact, so far as I can tell, they’re the only FCS team playing this fall that isn’t playing any games against FBS teams. The Bison scheduled the game in part to exploit a loophole: FCS teams that play at least one game are allowed to practice more. NDSU was essentially able to have a monthlong training camp in preparation for its “season.” “It is critical for our development to practice and play early this fall,” head coach Matt Entz said in a press release. (Between Carson and Matt, I’m looking into what percentage of North Dakotans have last names ending in —entz.) Only two other teams in this year’s FCS top 25 played this fall—meaning NDSU’s one-game season enabled it to practice more than almost any team that could potentially beat the Bison this spring.
However, my hunch is that North Dakota State also wanted to play one more game with Lance. He declared for the 2021 NFL draft on Tuesday, as there was no way he could’ve played for NDSU during the spring season and also gone pro: The deadline to declare for the draft is in January, NDSU’s season will start in February, and the draft will be in April, before the FCS championship. Every school has a vested interest in seeing its players drafted highly—it can improve the quality of prospects they recruit. Wentz didn’t get any offers from FBS teams; after NDSU proved it could turn him into a top-five pick, the school became a more attractive destination. Lance was overlooked by Power Five schools at quarterback—his dream school, Minnesota, screwed up when head coach P.J. Fleck tried recruiting him as a safety. But Lance did pick the Bison over some FBS teams, including Boise State. If he’s a first-round pick, NDSU will have even more recruiting clout, and can gain an even stronger hold over the rest of the FCS. (There’s also some draft hype for NDSU offensive tackle Dillon Radunz, although it’s less certain that he’ll be a high-round pick.)
So, the stage was set. North Dakota State had a showcase game for Lance, and a herd of NFL scouts flocked to Fargo. Reports indicate that 28 teams sent personnel to watch Lance—twenty eight, out of the 32 teams in the league. At one point the broadcast showed a “fan cam” that normally would have spotlighted some of the thousands of NDSU faithful. Because no fans were allowed in the stadium, however, the cameraman showed a handful of the players’ family members before settling on Colts assistant general manager Ed Dodds. (I tweeted about it and now Colts fans are convinced they’re drafting Lance next year.) This would be Lance’s only opportunity to amass game tape between January 2020 and April 2021. It was a chance to show that he had improved during a massive stretch of time that is typically critical for the development of a rising QB prospect.
Unfortunately, Lance didn’t play particularly well. In his first season as North Dakota State’s quarterback, Lance threw 28 touchdowns and no interceptions. On Saturday against Central Arkansas, he threw a pick on an uncharacteristically bad pass:
Trey Lance will not go his entire career without throwing an interception. pic.twitter.com/5O82zGbcRJ— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) October 3, 2020
Lance lost only one fumble last season; Saturday, he was stripped on the Bison’s second possession of the game:
Rough start for Lance and the offense. Gets hit blind side, fumble, turnover.— Joe Tidei (@JoeyProspects) October 3, 2020
Looked like a protection breakdown. RG late picking up the blitzer. pic.twitter.com/PIBKq1j0Uf
Lance completed 66.9 percent of his passes and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt last year. Saturday, he went 15-of-30 for 149 yards. That’s just 4.9 yards per attempt—roughly half his season average from 2019.
Lance set a new career high for incompletions and doubled his career turnover count. That made the game significantly closer than a typical NDSU outing. The Bison never trailed in the fourth quarter last year (nor in the final 11 games of their 2018 campaign), but Central Arkansas took a 28-25 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in this one. (I’m sure the Central Arkansas players knew the scouts were in the stands too.)
But that lead didn’t last long, because Lance is head-and-shoulders better than most of his FCS competition. His sheer athleticism shined Saturday, as the 6-foot-4 226-pounder repeatedly busted through Central Arkansas on designed runs. Lance, who ran for 1,183 yards with 14 touchdowns last season, had 143 rushing yards with two scores against the Bears. His highlight of the day was a 53-yard touchdown during which he powered through the puny arms of three Central Arkansas defenders before sprinting past the few players left standing en route to the end zone:
Trey Lance refused to go down and willed his way to the end zone pic.twitter.com/J7IAl7DkoC— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 3, 2020
And while Lance’s accuracy wavered early, he showed that his arm might be the best in the draft class—maybe even better than that of Clemson star Trevor Lawrence. With the Bison trailing in the fourth quarter for the first time in his career, Lance made his best throw of the game—a 50-plus-yard bomb that seemed to scrape the Fargodome rafters before neatly nestling into the arms of a downfield receiver, who dropped an easy touchdown.
To some scouts, the surprisingly tight game may have been a boon. Lance never got a chance to make clutch throws last year—he attempted only one pass in the fourth quarter of last season’s national title game—and here he was throwing bull’s-eye bombs with his team trailing late.
For all the effort that went into getting Lance a game this fall, he neither significantly raised or lowered his draft stock. He slightly underwhelmed, while confirming what everybody already knew—that the FCS is two levels below where he belongs. He’s meant for the NFL, not for the second tier of college football. For any of the 31 teams that can’t get Trevor Lawrence, Lance’s superpowered skill set won’t be a bad consolation prize.
Saturday was almost certainly Lance’s last game for the Bison, and it was a strange swan song. NDSU quarterbacks are supposed to end their careers with championships. Lance—and all the scouts watching him—will have to settle for knowing that he went undefeated in the shortest season ever.
This piece was originally published before Trey Lance declared for the 2021 draft. It has since been updated.