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Milestone games in Craig Bohl's NDSU career

by Mike McFeely

I took some time over the weekend to think about the "biggest" games in Craig Bohl's 11 years as head coach of the NDSU football program. After starting, I realized again what a tremendous run he's had in Fargo. From beating Montana in 2003 to the magic of 2007 to the championship run the Bison are currently on.

Here are the milestone games in Bohl's time at NDSU. (If I've forgotten any, please let me know).

Aug. 30, 2003: In Bohl's first game as Bison coach, NDSU defeats Tusculum 28-7 before 10,581 at the Fargodome. The Bison rushed for 327 yards, including 124 from Rod Malone.

Sept. 6, 2003: Bohl's first signature win came in his second game at NDSU. Still a Division II program, the Bison traveled to Montana and defeated the third-ranked team in Division I-AA 25-24. The Bison trailed 24-2 at halftime, but outscored the Grizzlies 23-0 in the second half. The winning touchdown came on a fake field goal when Rod Malone hit Mike Wieser for a 20-yard TD pass with 2:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. Bohl and athletic director Gene Taylor referred to this game as their biggest victory until the Bison won their first FCS national title after the 2011 season.

Craig Bohl and Gene Taylor celebrate after the Bison beat Montana in 2003. (Photo credit Dickinson Press)

Oct. 8, 2003: In Bohl's only game against in-state rival North Dakota, the then-Sioux won 28-21 in overtime in Grand Forks. 

Aug. 28, 2004: NDSU's first game as a Division I program. The Bison throttled Valparaiso 52-0 at the Fargodome before a sellout crowd. Regular sellouts were still a few years away. Later in the 2004 season, South Dakota drew 9,010 and Concordia-St. Paul 7,045 to the dome.

Sept. 4, 2004: The Bison lose 15-13 at Northern Colorado, but Bohl pulls struggling starting quarterback Tony Stauss in favor of freshman Steve Walker. Walker goes 10 for 10 passing with two fourth-quarter TDs, including a 9-play, 98-yard drive in the final minutes that pulled NDSU within 15-13. A failed 2-point conversion doomed the Bison, but Walker's performance was a hint at what was to come. He didn't start his first game until Oct. 30 against Northwestern State at the dome, and went on to become one of the greatest QBs in Bison history.

Oct. 8, 2005: The Bison traveled to San Luis Obispo, Calif., and were crushed by Cal Poly 37-6. It was the first time, and one of the last, NDSU wasn't competitive in a game under Bohl.

Sept. 23, 2006: In NDSU's first game against a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) program, the Bison defeat Ball State 29-24 in Muncie, Ind. Walker led NDSU on a 7-play, 92-yard drive in the final minute, capped by a 39-yard TD pass to Travis White. The Bison gained 535 yards of offense against the Cardinals, including 451 passing yards.

Oct. 21, 2006: At a Metrodome nearly half-occupied by NDSU fans, the Bison lose to Minnesota 10-9 when Shawn Bibeau's 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked on the game's final play. A couple of turnovers hurt NDSU as they outgained the Gophers 380-249 in total yards and had a 10-minute edge in time of possession.

Nov. 4, 2006: In a remarkable comeback, the Bison defeat Cal-Davis 28-24 after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Following a craig Dahl interception with 2:32 remaining, the Bison drove 77 yards in 16 plays to score the winning TD. Walker hit John Majeski on a 10-yard TD pass with 4 seconds left.

Sept. 15, 2007: In what at the time was the most exciting game played at the Fargodome, NDSU beat Sam Houston State 41-38 in a shootout of quarterbacks. Sam Houston's Rhett Bomar (a transfer from Oklahoma) completed 36 of 61 passes for 4 TDs and 358 yards. He ran for 103 more. Walker was 18 of 26 for 295 yards and 5 TDs, including the game-winner. NDSU led 34-21 after three quarters, two Bomar TD passes and a field goal gave the Bearkats a 38-34 with 26 seconds left in the fourth. A short kickoff gave NDSU the ball at its own 46. Walker passed 27 yards to Kole Heckendorf on first down to move the ball to the Sam Houston 27. An incomplete pass followed. Then Walker hit Heckendorf again, this time for a dramatic 27-yard TD pass that gave NDSU the victory.

Sept. 22, 2007: The Bison crushed FBS Central Michigan 44-14. Walker was 25 of 30 for 261 yards and outplayed Central Michigan's highly touted Dan LeFevour.

Oct. 20, 2007: NDSU and Bohl get their first national publicity splash by beating Minnesota 27-21 in a Metrodome that might have had more Bison fans than Gophers fans. The ESPN highlight was fullback Tyler Roehl taking a lateral pass from Walker and rumbling 77 yards for a TD, but the game-winner was Walker's 7-yard TD pass to Thor Brown in the fourth quarter that gave NDSU a 24-21 lead. Roehl rushed for a school-record 263 yards and the Bison compiled 585 total yards. Walker and the Bison ran out the clock with a 12-play, 46-yard drive that consumed the final 5:40.

Nov. 10, 2007: Another miracle Walker victory, this time in a late-night game on the West Coast. Down 28-9 to Cal Poly in the fourth quarter, NDSU scores three TDs in the final 9:36 to win 31-28. The game-winner was an 80-yard bomb from Walker to Heckendorf with 38 seconds left. 

Nov. 17, 2007: NDSU's bid for a perfect season ends with a 29-24 loss at South Dakota State, a game that also cost the Bison their No. 1 ranking in the FCS national polls.

Sept. 20, 2008: Bohl coaches the Bison in their first game as a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, a 32-24 loss at Youngstown State. The quarterback who replaced Walker as the starter, Nick Mertens, threw four interceptions and NDSU's defense allowed 340 rushing yards. The Bison finished 4-4 in the conference after being picked to win the league before the season. Bohl has since said he and his staff learned how tough the MVFC was in '08, leading to changes that set the table for the 2010-2013 run of success.

Oct. 10, 2009: Northern Iowa crushes NDSU 42-27 at the Fargodome, the low point of Bohl's worst season at NDSU. The Bison finished 3-8, including 2-6 in league. NDSU started 0-5 in the conference before beating Western Illinois on Halloween for its first league victory. Bohl made changes to his coaching staff following the season.

Sept. 4, 2010: The Bison again knocked off an opponent from a BCS conference, this time beating Kansas of the Big 12 6-3. NDSU gained just 168 yards of total offense and its only points came on a pair of field goals, but the defense forced two Jayhawks fumbles and an interception. In hindsight,  perhaps as notable as the victory were some of the players who saw their first action in a Bison uniform: Marcus Williams, Grant Olson, Cole Jirik, Michael Murphy, Andrew Grothmann, Tyler Gimmestad, Ryan Drevlow, Leevon Perry and Derrick Lange. All would play a role in NDSU's back-to-back national titles.

Sept. 18, 2010: The Bison crushed Morgan State 35-9 at the Fargodome in a game that was long forgotten. In retrospect, the most important aspect of the day was that a freshman quarterback named Brock Jensen played in his first game for NDSU. Relieving starter Jose Mohler, who suffered a concussion in the second quarter, Jensen finished 8 of 17 for 117 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. On his first snap as a Bison, he rushed for 3 yards on a keeper. Jensen started the next week against South Dakota, but returned to the bench when Mohler was cleared to play. Jensen didn't become the regular starter until the final regular-season game Nov. 20 at Missouri State.

Nov. 20, 2010: Punchless NDSU loses 3-0 at Missouri State to finish the regular season 7-4. Jensen started at QB, but was replaced by Mohler. The loss appeared to doom the Bison's chances of making a postseason appearance for the first time since 2000, but the team was surprised the next day when the NCAA announced NDSU was the final selection for the playoff field. 

Nov. 27, 2010: In the first NDSU football playoff game in the Fargodome, the Bison overwhelmed Robert Morris 43-17. The game fell on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, contributing to a small crowd of 12,202.

Dec. 4, 2010: The Bison traveled to Montana State in their second playoff game and stunned the FCS world with a 42-17 pounding of the sixth-ranked Bobcats on a 17-degree day. NDSU racked up 376 rushing yards, including 207 yards and four TDs from D.J. McNorton.

Dec. 11, 2010: At the snowy, frigid red field of top-ranked Eastern Washington, the Bison fall 38-31 in overtime in a controversial quarterfinal playoff game. The Bison led 31-24 late in the fourth quarter, but the Eagles went on a 13-play, 90-yard drive to tie it with 23 seconds left. Eastern Washington then scored on its first play of overtime on a 25-yard pass from Bo Mitchell to Tyler Hart. The Bison were moving toward a score on their OT possession when Jensen ran a keeper on second and goal from the Eagles 4. Jensen reached the 1, but fumbled after being tackled and Eastern Washington recovered. Replays appeared to show he didn't fumble until hitting the ground, but referee Bill Fette did not overturn the call and Eastern Washington advanced. The Eagles went on to win the national championship. Bohl (and many Bison players and fans) believe if NDSU had won that game, it would have won the title.

Sept. 24, 2011: In a much-anticipated matchup early in a much-anticipated season, the Bison dominated Minnesota 37-24 at TCF Bank Stadium. Two electric plays by cornerback Marcus Williams, a Minneapolis native who went unrecruited by the Gophers, were the signature. On the final play of the first half, NDSU's Colten Heagle intercepted a pass at the Bison 18 and returned it to the 48, where he flipped the ball toward Williams. The ball hit the turf, but Williams scooped it up and sprinted 52 yards along the sideline for a touchdown and a 28-14 halftime lead for NDSU. In the fourth quarter, Williams picked off a pass and ran it 40 yards for another TD as the game's exclamation point.

Oct. 29, 2011: A packed and electric Fargodome was home to NDSU's 27-19 win over Northern Iowa, the Bohl's first win over the Panthers. It was the most buzz-worthy home game in years -- perhaps ever to that point -- because the Bison had to prove it could beat Northern Iowa if it wanted to win the Missouri Valley Conference. They did, led by Jensen's 22 of 25 passing performance. NDSU went on to win its first title in the MVFC and entered the FCS playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

Dec. 17, 2011: After easily handling James Madison and Lehigh in playoff games at the Fargodome, the Bison hosted No. 2-ranked Georgia Southern in the semifinals. A new level of noise and atmosphere entered the realm of Bison football with this game, which NDSU led 14-7 at halftime. The second half was all Bison as their top-ranked defense stuffed the Eagles' option attack and NDSU's offensive line hammered GSU's defense. The Bison won going away, 35-7, by piling up 314 rushing yards and 451 total yards. The victory earned Bohl and the Bison their first trip to Frisco, Texas, for the FCS championship game.

Jan. 7, 2012: Championship weekend started with thousands of Bison fans migrating to north Texas and drinking Frisco out of beer on the Friday night before the game. It ended with NDSU's first FCS title, a 17-6 win over Sam Houston State. A 39-yard screen pass from Jensen to McNorton gave NDSU a tenuous 10-6 lead in the third quarter and the victory wasn't secured until freshman linebacker Travis Beck intercepted a Brian Bell pass and returned it 63 yards to the Bearkats' 1. Jensen scored on the next play, NDSU's defense held the rest of the way and Bohl had his first title.

Sept. 8, 2012: The defending champ and No. 1-ranked Bison won another game against an FBS opponent, dominating Colorado State 22-7. And it wasn't that close.

Dec. 1, 2012: After winning another conference title and securing the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the Bison hosted rival South Dakota State and All-American running back Zach Zenner in the second round. NDSU's defense again rose to the occasion, holding Zenner to 46 yards in a 28-3 victory.

Dec. 8, 2012: A playoff quarterfinal was surprisingly tough. Wofford of the Southern Conference brought its option attack and running back Eric Breitenstein. The Terriers also brought a hard-nosed defense to the dome. The Bison held on for a 14-7 win, but only after Jensen threw a pick-six in the second quarter that made the game 7-7. The game-winner was a 16-yard pass from Jensen to Vraa, on a drive kept alive by a third-down pass interference call on Wofford. The Bison's Anthony Lavoy blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter to maintain NDSU's seven-point advantage.

Dec. 14, 2012: A Friday night semifinal game on ESPN2 turned into one of the most thrilling victories of Bohl's tenure and sent the Bison back to Frisco. A rematch with Georgia Southern was a 23-20 Bison victory. It wasn't easy. NDSU needed a dramatic drive in the final minutes and a 4th-and-3 do-or-die conversion from Jensen and a blocked field goal to make it happen. The Eagles took a 20-16 lead into the fourth quarter and it stayed that way until Jensen led the Bison on a 53-yard, 7-play drive for a touchdown. Facing fourth-and-3 at the Eagles 5 -- with the Bison calling one timeout and the Eagles calling two to heighten the tension -- Jensen went up the middle on a keeper, ran over a Georgia Southern defender and went into the end zone for a dramatic touchdown. The noise from the full-house crowd at the dome reached new levels when Jensen scored. But the game wasn't finished. The Eagles took over with 3:05 left and completed a 40-yard pass on fourth-and-11 to the Bison 36. The drive stalled there and Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken elected to try a 50-yard field goal by Drew Ruggles, who just joined the Eagles the week prior to the game. Ruggles' kick was blocked by Carlton Littlejohn and the Bison preserved the victory.

Jan. 5, 2013: Bison fans again took over Frisco, filling the town's 10,000-seat baseball stadium for a Friday night rally. The title rematch against Sam Houston State was anticlimatic, with the Bison willing 39-13. It was tied 10-10 at the half, but NDSU's offensive line hammered the Bearkats into submission in the second half and the Bison scored on their first four possessions. NDSU rushed for 300 yards and rolled to 441 total yards.

Aug. 30, 2013: NDSU made national headlines by beating respected Kansas State of the Big 12 on a stifling Friday night in Manhattan, Kan. The 24-21 victory was nationally televised on the new Fox Sports1 network. The Bison won it with what was deemed the greatest drive in program history: 18 plays, 80 yards in 8:30, capped with a 1-yard TD run by Jensen. The Bison converted on four third-downs on the drive.

Sept. 21, 2013: ESPN's much-watched College GameDay pregame show broadcast from downtown Fargo prior to the Bison's 51-0 win over Delaware State. Thousands of fans filled Broadway to see Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and Samantha Ponder do their thing for a national audience. The show was capped when Corso, donning NDSU mascot Thundar's head, walked out of the Fargo Theatre with a baby bison in tow.

Oct. 5, 2013: In the first Missouri Valley Conference game of the season, NDSU rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Northern Iowa 23-17 at the dome. It was Jensen leading the way again, this time marching the Bison on a 76-yard drive that took eight plays. Sam Ojuri's 19-yard TD run with 2:52 was the winner. It was the only Valley game that was close for the top-ranked Bison.

Dec. 7, 2013: NDSU begins defense of its national titles with a playoff blitzing of Furman at the Fargodome. Leading just 10-7 at halftime, NDSU overwhelmed Furman in the third quarter with three TDs, including an interception return by Marcus Williams. The game result was quickly forgotten, however, as word leaked out Bohl was going to accept the head coaching job at Wyoming the next day. Bohl confirmed the news the next day.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)