FRISCO, Texas — Among the celebrating sea of North Dakota State football fans covering the Toyota Stadium turf again Saturday was one man holding a sign that would make every other team in the Football Championship Subdivision cry just a little bit.
"How do you like our rebuilding year?"
Yes, it's true. This was supposed to be a year when the mighty Bison took just a little step backward to the rest of the pack. When they were supposed to be vulnerable. It made sense since last season's undefeated national champion team lost 24 seniors, including one of the greatest quarterbacks the storied program has seen in Easton Stick.
None of the experts, so-called in the case of present company, seemed to comprehend the idea that perhaps the heir apparent to Stick might be just as good.
Trey Lance is just as good.
NDSU senior safety James Hendricks was one of biggest heroes of the Bison's 28-20 victory over James Madison, the team's eighth national championship in nine seasons, with a 20-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal and an interception in the closing seconds that clinched it.
The player, though, that made his name known nationally to an ABC-TV audience and sent every head coach in FCS not named Matt Entz reaching for a bottle of aspirin — or something marked 80 proof if that's their thing — was Lance.
The future was wearing No. 5, while winning a national championship in the present.
If you think the Bison dynasty is ending anytime soon, you weren't paying attention to what the redshirt freshman quarterback did to James Madison.
"A cut above," is how JMU coach Curt Cignetti referred to Lance.
The theme of next year's FCS season is going to be: How do you stop Trey Lance?
"Good luck," Hendricks said.
The quarterback from Marshall, Minn., less than 24 hours after being named the winner of the Walter Payton Award as the best offensive player in FCS, ran for 166 yards on 30 carries. Included was a signature 44-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter on which Lance avoided James Madison's pass rush and sprinted through the green grass untouched to the end zone.
It came on a third-and-23 play and extended NDSU's 20-13 lead to 28-13, meaning it came at a most opportune time.
"For him to be that young — I've said it before — he's very dynamic," Dukes defensive lineman Ron'Dell Carter said. "For him to be that young and that calm in the pocket is pretty crazy. He's got three years left of his eligibility. That's pretty impressive."
The Bison coaches put the game on Lance's back, and instead of crumpling to the ground under the pressure, he excelled.
This can't be repeated enough: He's a freshman.
"An absolute stud. He's so mature beyond his years. He's an unbelievable leader. He's a great player, a great friend. The fact that he's a freshman is incredible," Hendricks said. "But I'll also say that he got to learn from one of the best people I've ever known in Easton Stick. Trey isn't far behind."
The victory capped an unprecedented weekend for Lance, which capped an unprecedented season. He became the first freshman to win the most coveted award in FCS, the Payton, Friday night. Lance didn't attend the awards banquet at a Frisco hotel because he didn't want to leave his teammates.
"I turned my phone off last night just to get away from it. If we didn't win today, none of that really mattered," Lance said. "This is what was important to me and the guys on my team. It would've been selfish of me to worry about other things like that."
On Saturday, he finished a 16-0 rookie season, one in which he didn't throw an interception while tossing 28 touchdown passes.
"It's unbelievable. It's probably never happened, has it?" Bison quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said. "It's unbelievable to go through 16 games without a pick. It's pretty impressive."
What can Lance possibly do for an encore?
"There's going to be some things he's going to learn about. We have two guys in the NFL who can teach him some things, too," Hedberg said, referring to Stick and Carson Wentz. "We already have a good plan put together for the offseason to get better. He can get better. There's no question about it."
That noise you just heard was other FCS coaches reaching for the aspirin. Or the 80 proof.
Bison senior receiver Jimmy Keporous was asked what more Lance can do.
"The real question is what can't he do," Keporous said.
Judging by his freshman season and his first championship game, not much.
"I am so excited he's a Bison. He's a Bison through and through. I know he's happy with the win, but I can guarantee you he's going to get back to watching film and asking, 'How can I get better?'" NDSU offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said. "He's a competitor and I'm sure his goal is to do things better than they've ever been done before."
The next three years are going to be entertaining with Lance around. Unless you're playing against the Bison, in which case you might want to stock up on aspirin or 80 proof because the dynasty's heartbeat is back to being as strong as ever. Not that it ever really went away. Even in a "rebuilding" year, the Bison and their quarterback are a cut above.