FARGO — For all the work the North Dakota State University football did all season to prepare for a shot at their second straight NCAA Division I football championship, the ultimate yes or no seemed to hinge on one play in Friday's 23-20 win over Georgia Southern University at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
With 3:10 left in the game, the Bison had a fourth down with three yards to go at the GSU 5-yard line.
So the Bison gave it to quarterback Brock Jensen, who gutted it straight up the middle on a quarterback draw, getting five yards and the game-winning touchdown.
"We called it and there was a hole there for me and I tried to hit it as hard as I could," Jensen said.
The carry not only got the win, but booked the Bison for a second straight trip to Frisco, Texas, early next year when the Bison defend their national title.
It was the second year in the row that the Bison beat GSU in the semifinals of the tournament.
The championship game, scheduled for Jan. 5 at FC Dallas Stadium, will be a rematch with Sam Houston State, who the Bison beat in last year's title game.
But Jensen's game changing play took longer to execute than expected.
Before running it, NDSU took a time out. When play was expected to resume, GSU took a time out, and then called a second, and their final, timeout.
With all three timeouts, the call never changed, NDSU coach Craig Bohl said.
"There was a lot of debating going on on the phones about whether to change the call or not," Bohl said. "(Offensive coordinator) Brent (Vigen) knew exactly what we wanted to do — put the ball in Brock Jensen's hands."
But even after the touchdown put the Bison ahead, GSU didn't go down without a fight.
The Eagles started the game's final drive with a rush that lost a yard and two incomplete passes. On 4th and 11 from their own 24, quarterback Ezayi Youyoute connected on a 40 yard pass to Zach Walker at the NDSU 36. The Eagles moved the ball up to the 33, which put them in position for a 50-yard field goal to tie it with :34 seconds left. But the Bison's special teams game through blockng the field goal to clinch the win.
But it was far from an easy win.
GSU ran a simple ground and pound offense on the opening drive, getting short yardage runs from a variety of sources, moving the ball within the NDSU 10.
After the Eagles were stopped on a third and one at the 4, they went for it on 4th down, where Jerick McKinnon handed it off to JJ Wilcox, who picked up the ball on a sweep along the right side and in for a touchdown to go up 6-0 after having their point-after kick blocked.
After NDSU ran the ensuing kickoff their own 26, they mixed it up using a combination of runs and passes to get into Eagle territory. When they got there, the Bison switched it up again, giving the ball to Jensen, who kept the ball, running it 26 yards to the GSU 4. The Bison then used three straight runs by John Crockett to get it in the end zone, although their point-after kick was also blocked, and the teams entered the second quarter tied 6-6.
Early in the second quarter, the Bison seemed poised for a big stop when they had Georgia Southern trying for a third-and-six at their own 49. But the Eagles threw them off with a play action that left Dominique Swope open in the middle downfield. McKinnon hit Swope, who ran it to the left for a touchdown and gave GSU a 13-6 lead with 12:17 in the first half.
The Bison trimmed the lead to 13-9 by halftime and got their first lead of the game with 10:42 left in the third quarter on a 53-yard run by Sam Ojuri. GSU's final touchdown came on a 25-yard run by McKinnon late in the third quarter.
The Bison finished only 276 offensive yards, compared to the 430 they allowed. Sam Ojuri led NDSU with 71 rushing yards on six rushes, and John Crockett had 60 yards on 16 rushes. Jensen finished with 58 yards on 10 rushes and also had 76 passing yards on 9-19 completions.
McKinnon led GSU with 174 rushing yards and 91 passing yards.
Bohl said he was proud of his team and the efforts the players have made to get back to the championship game.
"At the begining of the year you set goals, and one of our goals is to win the nationals championship, but it's a long and tedious process and some things have to go right," he said. "It's not by chance that we're here, but we are very fortunate to be here and we're just excited to be here."