FARGO — There’s the Thanksgiving holiday feast for the North Dakota State football players, many of whom went home to spend it with family and friends late last week. And then there’s the day after when the business of the Division I FCS playoffs begin.
It’s just different, the players say.
“When you come back from Thanksgiving break, everyone has a different mentality,” sophomore linebacker James Kaczor said. “A little edge and that’s going to help us in the playoffs.”
The Bison hope it helps against Nicholls State (La.) Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in a second-round playoff game at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The Bison had a first-round bye while Nicholls defeated the University of North Dakota 24-6 in a first-round game.
At this time last year, quarterback Trey Lance was considered the No. 2 backup behind senior Easton Stick, although as a true freshman he was only going to be used if something happened to Stick.
Lance remembers head strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer telling the true freshmen that practice during the FCS playoffs picks up in terms of intensity. Still, Lance had his doubts.
“I might have brushed it off a little bit last year thinking how different can it be?” Lance said. “Our practices are already pretty intense, but there is definitely a noticeable change. And even more this year; guys are hungrier and a lot of guys are making their first start in the playoffs.”
That includes Lance, who took his first year as a starter and ran with it. He completed 151 of 219 passes for 2,187 yards, 23 touchdowns and no interceptions during the regular season.
“Yeah, the role has changed a lot, but obviously we play with a lot of great players and the senior leadership this year has been incredible,” Lance said. “There’s a big difference from last year but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Specifically, NDSU has 11 players making their first postseason start. And it comes against a Nicholls team that starts 18 juniors or seniors on offense and defense.
“Talented, athletic group,” Lance said. “From their d-line to their secondary, they’re an experienced group and they play well together. They do their job.”
Since the Bison defeated Southern Illinois 21-7 to end the regular season, the awards came at a furious clip. They swept all five major awards in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with Coach of the Year (Matt Entz), Defensive Player of the Year (defensive end Derrek Tuszka), Offensive Player of the Year (Lance), Newcomer of the Year (Lance) and Freshman of the Year (Lance).
NDSU put 11 players on the all-conference team including eight first-teamers. Freshman running back Kobe Johnson joined Lance on the All-Newcomer team.
None of the major national awards have been named yet.
All of which are fine, Lance said, but that’s about it. Putting them aside is not an issue. He said one Bison player tried to give him a hard time about it in practice on Monday “and I wasn’t in the mood for it.”
“I don’t think it’s as hard as you guys think,” he said. “It’s on social media and everything but if we don’t win this game, then none of that matters.”
Entz said Johnson is back at practice after getting banged up in the SIU game. Entz said he’s not certain to the full health of tight end Josh Babicz (ankle) and defensive tackle Cole Karcz (knee) “but for the most part we’re at full speed,” he said. “We’re more healthy than we have been for a while.”