Jeff Illies of Lidgerwood knows what the North Dakota State University Bison football team was facing emotionally and physically as they prepared to meet James Madison University in the FCS national title game at Frisco, Texas. In fact, JMU is exactly the team Illies faced in the national title game both his junior and senior years. JMU is the only team to beat the Bison for the FCS championship in about the last decade, having beat NDSU when Illies was a junior. He said it was an incredible feeling to beat JMU his senior year and go out on top as the national champion. Here’s what Illies has to say about playing collegiate football in the national title game:
Question: You were part of the NDSU football team, having been a Bison player for five years. What is your prediction for this national title game? Answer: I predict a good ball game. I think it will be a low scoring affair. I think we will beat them by a touchdown or 10 points. I will be watching that game for sure.
Question: What kinds of activities do they have lined up for the collegiate football players in Frisco? Answer: The team got there (Wednesday). I’m pretty sure the first night, they do work with special needs kids. When I was there, we always had a flag football game. They would pair players from each team with kids and a flag football game. It was a blast. Everyone not paired not, they are the fan section. When the kids scored touchdowns, we went crazy. They definitely enjoyed it. This was part of giving back to the community of Frisco.
Question: NDSU is led by a freshman quarterback, Trey Lance. How much pressure do you think he is feeling? Answer: I think he’s proven all year, he’s ready to step into a leadership role. At this point in the season, the stakes are high because it obviously is a national championship on the line. He’s been part of leading that team all year. I think he has really grown all year as a leader. No surprise he’s become the leader that he is.
Question: Did you feel the pressure as a player in this kind of game? Answer: I think there is a lot of outside pressure, especially with the hype leading up to the game, activities and with everything going on in social media. The main thing they preached to us, you treat it like another game, a business trip. You do what we have to do, give back to the community, but when that clock starts, it’s just another football game. Once you are in that locker room, especially being there before, you get serious. You know what’s on the line. For us, it was almost routine for us. You don’t take what it took to get there lightly.
Question: How prepared did you feel when you were playing for a national championship? Answer: We treated it like another game. They really emphasized for seniors too, it’s their last football game they will ever play unless lucky enough to go on. You need to do it for the seniors, and seniors for the underclassmen, it’s time to make a statement.
Question: NDSU has undergone three coaching changes in the past few years, but yet keep heading to Frisco. How is NDSU so successful in creating these milestone teams capable of making it to the FCS national title game year in and year out? Answer: I say it to everyone, it’s hard to understand unless you are there, it’s the culture. Last year we lost 18 seniors. People were asking me how they would be this year, I didn’t know since I don’t know these kids on the personal level. But it’s a cultural thing at NDSU. Coach Entz is part of the foundation we’ve built. One guy goes down throughout the year, preparation and culture with these kids have been taught the next man up will do his job just as well.
Question: What is it like playing in the Fargodome with the fans the Bison generated? Answer: We know how to appreciate it because we play at other places with good programs and there is no fan base. States like Illinois or Iowa for example, they have so many different teams in those states. We have a whole state backing us. When we traveled, half the stands were full and most were Bison fans. I miss running out of that tunnel. Ask any player, there is nothing like it.
Question: What is your favorite moment from playing in a title game? Answer: We beat JMU my last year by 3 or 4. We actually lost to them my junior year. Getting to beat them my senior year and go out on top felt like the best year ever.