Chris Klieman clearly has something special going at North Dakota State.
From the sellout crowd that attended its 44-21 victory over South Dakota State in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs on Friday to the championship banners hanging proudly for all to see, everything about the gameday atmosphere at the Fargodome screamed big-time football.
That is far from unusual, but this game felt more meaningful than most because it was Klieman’s final home appearance.
This weekend, he will trade his green and yellow clothing for purple and hit the recruiting trail as the head coach of Kansas State. Then, following the FCS national championship game on Jan. 5, he will move to Manhattan and coach the Wildcats full time.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Curious K-State fans from all across the country tuned in to get a glimpse of what they can expect from their new coach, the man picked to follow Bill Snyder.
They learned a lot.
Anyone watching this game got a feel for what Klieman is like as a coach and the system he likes to run.
The biggest takeaway has to be that his teams are physical. North Dakota State players manhandled their rivals on both sides of the ball, running between the tackles for hard-earned yards on offense and delivering hard hits on defense.
NDSU skill players showed no interest in going out of bounds. Quarterback Easton Stick stiff-armed his way to the end zone on a 34-yard keeper in the second quarter to give the Bison a 14-7 lead, and running back Bruce Anderson dove over a pile of blockers for an old-school touchdown at the goal line early on in the third quarter.
The vast majority of North Dakota State’s plays were runs between the tackles, and when Stick was asked to throw he typically did so after a play-action fake. The Bison churned out 439 rushing yards, with five different players touching the ball out of the backfield. Stick completed 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards.
It remains unclear who will play running back for K-State next season following the departures of Alex Barnes, Dalvin Warmack and Justin Silmon, but whoever it is could put up some serious stats.
Skylar Thompson will probably enjoy playing quarterback for his new coach. Stick was involved with every aspect of the offense, and North Dakota State coaches brilliantly utilized misdirection to get receivers open.
The vast majority of North Dakota State’s plays featured pre-snap movement. There were times the Bison initially showed five receivers, but shifted into a two-receiver look with multiple tight ends and a fullback. South Dakota State’s defense was always guessing.
On defense, the Bison were just as physical.
With a 4-3 look, North Dakota State got after SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion. The Bison brought pressure without elaborate blitzes, forcing him to constantly scramble outside the pocket. He was twice checked for injuries in the first half and seemed terrified of getting hit afterward.
That much was clear on a trick play near the end of the first half. Christion tossed a lateral to one of his receivers and then went out for a return pass. A first down was there for the taking, but he slid to the turf with two NDSU defenders closing and came up short.
North Dakota State led 14-7 at halftime and turned the game into a rout afterward. It dominated the second half.
South Dakota State managed to hurt the Bison at times through the air, with Cade Johnson catching a 52-yard touchdown in the third quarter. North Dakota State was also penalized a lot for false starts. It was far from a perfect effort.
Nevertheless, the Bison are now 14-0 and one win away from a national championship. It will be Klieman’s fourth if they win next month in Frisco, Texas.
Things will no doubt be more difficult for him next season when he leaves this well-oiled machine for a team in need of a tuneup.
Still, there was a lot to like from a K-State perspective.