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NDSU's playoff run gave injured Dunn another chance at playing

North Dakota State's Jabril Cox returns a fumble as he stiff arms James Madison's Ishmael Hyman during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick down the ball to end the game against James Madison for the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
North Dakota State's Easton Stick fires a pass against James Madison during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
North Dakota State's Lance Dunn carries against James Madison during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

FRISCO, Texas—As each day came and went throughout the FCS playoffs, North Dakota State running back Lance Dunn increasingly became optimistic his season wasn't over after all.

A labrum injury suffered in mid-October against Western Illinois had all but disappeared by the time the Bison returned from a brief Christmas break and Dunn was in the lineup Saturday, Jan. 6, in the 17-13 win over James Madison that gave the Bison their sixth FCS title in seven years.

"When I got back from break, I started practicing and feeling good," Dunn said. "I came out there and did whatever I could to help the team win."

Dunn had 50 yards on 13 carries against a stiff Dukes defense. But his 21-yard run later in the fourth quarter helped the Bison keep the ball for almost five minutes and keep the Dukes' offense on the sidelines.

"I'm going to be honest, I didn't know if I was going to be back right after the injury," Dunn said. "I had faith in the guys and I knew we were going to keep pushing to the championship game, and they gave me opportunities to play. I just took advantage of that. It's just a blessing to be here and to be the national champion again."

Last play took some thought

The last play of the game was a source of debate with the Bison offensive staff and quarterback Easton Stick. NDSU had fourth down-and-1 yard to go at their own 34-yard line with four seconds remaining.

They were four seconds that stood between the Bison and a title. The instructions were for Stick to take the snap and run out the clock.

"If you have to take a safety, take a safety," said offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, "but make sure the clock runs out. The only thing I said is you can't get tackled until the clock runs out. It doesn't matter how many yards you lose."

Stick said he and the coaching staff were "going back and forth" on the best way to do that. He took the snap in shotgun formation and ran back 18 yards before taking a knee and hurling the ball in the air.

"I just made sure, number one, catch the snap, and I found the clock right away and wanted to get down as soon as it was hitting zero," Stick said. "That was a special feeling. Seeing all our guys run out there and knowing we finished the right way for the seniors. That was a good feeling."

First a baby, then a title

It's been quite the last few weeks for NDSU defensive tackle Grant Morgan. Just over a week ago, he and his wife Morgan welcomed their daughter Paisley to the world. On Saturday, he ended his Bison career with a national title.

"Morgan and Paisley are at home watching right now," Grant said, with Queen's "We Are the Champions" blaring over the Toyota Stadium speakers. "The rest of my family is down on the field. Unfortunately, they couldn't make it but I know they're here in spirit. I thought about them this morning and obviously would love to have them here but at the same time it would be a heck of a trip with an 8-day-old. What a blessing."

Gamble almost pays for Dukes

James Madison surprised NDSU with a fake punt at crucial spot in the fourth quarter, keeping alive a potential game-winning drive.

Facing fourth-and-9 at the JMU 47 with 3 minutes left, punter Harry O'Kelly ran to the left side for 24 yards and a first down. O'Kelly had clear sailing until Aaron Mercadel tackled him at the Bison 29.

Coach Mike Houston said the Dukes felt like they could exploit a Bison punt formation if needed.

"We worked that all week. We felt like we'd get that look from them. As we worked that fake for the last couple of weeks, we saw it on the first punt that it was there," Houston said. "I just wanted to wait until the right time because you only get one shot at it."

The play allowed James Madison the opportunity to score the go-ahead touchdown, but the drive ended when quarterback Bryan Schor's pass to the end zone was batted down by NDSU.

"It obviously gave us a lot of life. We've got a special guy back there kicking the ball, and I look forward to watching him in the future as well," Schor said.

JMU special teams roll

James Madison's special teams kept the Dukes in the game as their offense had trouble moving the ball against the Bison.

Punt returner D'Angelo Amos returned four punts for 87 yards, including a couple that gave the Dukes good field position.

Amos returned Jackson Koonce's short punt 37 yards to the Bison 14 in the first quarter, setting up a field goal by Ethan Ratke.

Amos ran back another short Koonce punt 33 yards in the third quarter to the Bison 33. That led to JMU's only touchdown of the game, a 1-yard run by Marcus Marshall.

"I think our punt return team did a good job today of getting on the coverage guys, holding them up, giving D'Angelo some room," Houston said. "I think he did a good job with his vision, just seeing the cuts and seeing where the return was, and getting us solid field position. So excited to have him coming back for the future."

Dukes defensive tackle Simeyon Robinson also blocked a 38-yard Cam Pedersen field goal try with 4:37 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bison leading 17-13.

"I needed to block the field goal. I needed to block the field goal for the offense to get back on the field and have the opportunity to score. That was my mindset. That was everybody else's mindset, block the field goal," Robinson said.

Brooks had surgery on shoulder

Bison running back Ty Brooks, who was hurt in the semifinal win over Sam Houston State, had surgery on his shoulder two weeks ago and was never going to play in the title game, said head coach Chris Klieman. He did not divulge the injury as to not let JMU the luxury of preparing for it.

Houston also did not reveal injury status of his players.

"You have to hold your cards," Klieman said. "I didn't want to say anything about Ty because Ty is one of the most electric players in FCS. If you have to prepare for Ty Brooks, holy mackerel. If you knew Ty Brooks was out—Mike knows that. Mike gets it."

Cornerback Jaylaan Wimbush warmed up and played briefly. Starting cornerback Jalen Allison also warmed up but did not play.

"I really didn't know on Wimbush, he tried to go," Klieman said. "I think he played a few plays and just couldn't go. Jalen, we were trying to go all the way through this week hoping he'd have an opportunity, and he warmed up and just couldn't do it."

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.

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