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Eric Peterson, Published December 29 2013

Bison searching for perfection

Fargo - Jon Kasper was a college student the last time there was an unbeaten FCS national champion, and watched the title game from a fraternity house.

Kasper was in his senior year at the University of Montana as the Grizzlies played Marshall for the 1996 national title, in what was then-called Division I-AA.

Both teams had yet to lose, but Marshall had one talented player who stuck out above everyone – wide receiver Randy Moss.

“You took one player in Randy Moss and that turned the whole tide,” said Kasper, now the assistant commissioner for media relations in the Big Sky Conference. “I remember he was wearing like the ‘Cat in the Hat’ socks. He had no business being on the field at the FCS level.”

Marshall rolled to a 49-29 victory in that title game, which was played on its home field in Huntington, W.V. Moss, a future NFL superstar, caught nine passes for 220 yards and four TDs. The Thundering Herd ended the season with a 15-0 record.

North Dakota State will be chasing that history at 1 p.m. Saturday when it plays Towson University (Md.) for the FCS national title in Frisco, Texas. The Bison (14-0) are trying to become the first undefeated FCS national champion since that Moss-led Marshall squad.

“It wasn’t almost fair that year with Marshall,” said Kasper, pointing out that Marshall moved to Division I-A (now FBS) the following season.

Moss was a transfer from Florida State. Marshall’s senior starting quarterback Eric Kresser was a transfer from the University of Florida. Montana had defeated Marshall 22-20 in the 1995 national title game.

“The thing about Marshall in ’96 is they already knew that they were moving up. … Were they truly an FCS team?” Kasper said.

“Looking back at it ‘Was it even right that they were in the playoffs?’ ”

Under the current rules, teams like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State weren’t eligible for the FCS playoffs this fall, their final season in the division. Both are playing in the FBS next season.

Marshall rolled through the 1996 postseason. The Thundering Herd outscored their opponents 193-57 in that four-game playoff run. Marshall’s closest playoff win was a 31-14 victory against Northern Iowa in the semifinals.

“I don’t know if we are the best team ever in I-AA,” Kresser said after the title game. “But we should be considered when there is talk of the best ever. We proved that today.”

NDSU has had a stellar playoff run so far this season, having outscored its opponents 138-35 in the three games to advance to Frisco.

The Bison have won 23 consecutive games and have a chance at a third national title in a row.

“It’s an honor to represent Towson against one of the greatest football teams in the history of history,” said Towson head coach Rob Ambrose.

Appalachian State is the only FCS team that has won three consecutive national crowns, winning championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

“Marshall won the national title on its home field,” Kasper said of that 1996 team. “North Dakota State doesn’t have that advantage.”

Marshall is the second team in FCS history to go unbeaten en route to a national title. Georgia Southern also went 15-0 in 1989. The Eagles defeated Stephen F. Austin 37-34 in the championship game on their home field in Statesboro, Ga., to complete that perfect season.

After he finished college, Kasper went on to cover Grizzlies football for the Missoulian newspaper. He covered the Montana team that tied a division record with 24 wins in a row, a mark NDSU can tie with a victory against Towson.

Kasper, who was born in Minot, N.D., said he grew up an NDSU fan before he moved to Montana in his early teens. If the Bison win a third consecutive national crown, Kasper thinks this run would rank among the best in FCS history.

“This may be the most impressive of all those streaks,” Kasper said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found

at peterson.areavoices.com