BOZEMAN — It was third-and-17 in the second quarter of last week's FCS championship game, and North Dakota State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham needed to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Positioned at midfield, the Bison were leading by four points in what was a heavyweight fight with defending champion James Madison. A false start penalty on the play prior put NDSU deep behind the sticks.
It would have been easy for Messingham to call a running play, for the Bison to cut their losses and boot the ball away. Instead, what transpired was a game-defining moment that eventually helped the Bison beat JMU 17-13 and win their sixth FCS title in seven years.
To combat the Dukes’ hungry and effective pass rush, Messingham and the offensive coaches called a max-protection pass play. They sent three receivers out from the left side of the formation but kept both a tight end and a running back in to safeguard quarterback Easton Stick.
Stick had ample time, and he found wideout Darrius Shepherd down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown. Instead of conceding that possession, the Bison now had a lead that proved insurmountable.
“We just felt like we needed to do that because of the length of time it would take for that route combination to develop,” Messingham said Friday during an interview with 406mtsports.com. “And they played the coverage that we kind of anticipated them to play.
“Easton obviously threw a good ball and Darrius did a nice job making sure he caught it first and took it on into the end zone.”
When the game ended, the Bison and their fans poured onto the field at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, to celebrate their return to the pinnacle of FCS football after a one-year slip-up.
Winning it all
For Messingham, it was the culmination of a whirlwind 11 months that saw him relocate from Montana State the previous February to join forces with NDSU head coach and childhood friend Chris Klieman.
“It was pretty special,” Messingham said. “Obviously our players put a lot of time and effort in. Things have to go right for you in order to have the success we did. We had a very, very challenging season at times but it was a very rewarding season.”
The 2016 season was Messingham’s only stint with the Bobcats. He was Jeff Choate’s first offensive coordinator hire after Choate took the MSU job in December of 2015.
Under the run-first Messingham, the Bobcats ranked in the top three in the Big Sky Conference in rushing offense. As quarterbacks coach that year, Messingham also had the job of bringing along true freshman quarterback Chris Murray, who through half that season was still just 17 years old.
Montana State finished 2016 with back-to-back wins — including a 24-17 victory at Montana in which the Bobcats rushed for 368 yards.
Messingham said he “loved” his time at MSU, but when Klieman came calling last winter for Messingham to fill North Dakota State’s open offensive coordinator position, he couldn’t pass up the offer.
Klieman and Messingham first met on the baseball field as middle school students in Waterloo, Iowa, in the 1970s. They later played college football together at Northern Iowa in the 1980s and were on the coaching staff with one another at Missouri State in 1999. It’s a friendship with deep roots.
The Bobcats, in turn, replaced Messingham by promoting offensive line coach Brian Armstrong to the role of coordinator.
“I didn’t know that the opportunity would ever come, but I really felt like if we ever did have the chance to work together that I would probably want to do it,” said Messingham, who also grew up in Waterloo with Bison defensive coordinator Matt Entz.
“And then having it be North Dakota State, it was a pretty easy decision from that standpoint, just because of the relationship he and I had, but then also because of the things that are in place for you to have success here.
“It was a hard decision from the standpoint of we loved Bozeman and loved the staff that we had at Montana State. My wife and I both really enjoyed not just the coaching staff but the community and the people and the support there. But from a professional standpoint the ability to have things in place that give you a chance to be successful at (a championship) level, it was something I just felt like I needed to do.”
Under Messingham’s direction, NDSU’s offense led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in rushing and scoring. Running back Bruce Anderson rushed for 1,216 yards. Stick, a dual-threat quarterback, threw 28 touchdown passes and set a school record for single-season efficiency.
In the playoffs, the Bison whipped Wofford and Sam Houston State before clipping James Madison for the title. The continuation of NDSU’s championship run — six titles in seven seasons — furthered its reputation as the greatest dynasty in the 40-year history of the FCS.
Messingham got an up-close and personal look at a rock-solid winning formula at NDSU. Since 2011, the Bison are 97-8, a winning percentage of .924.
“The thing that I saw that first practice of spring was how much the team leaders — the captains, the juniors and seniors in the program — expect and demand the younger players do things right on the field,” Messingham said.
“I’m talking about how they do their individual drill work, how they do 7-on-7 passing-game stuff, how they do inside run, and there’s very few coaches telling someone that’s not the right way to do it, that’s not hard enough, that’s not with enough urgency.
“It’s the juniors and seniors, the team leaders, truly calling each other out. That makes it extremely easy for us as coaches.”
Choate is trying to instill a similar culture at Montana State, which Messingham said will eventually come to fruition. The Bobcats are 9-13 in two seasons under Choate. Most of last year’s six losses were decided by single digits.
Earlier this winter, Choate said his team will face greater internal expectations in 2018. Whether that means a run at a Big Sky Conference title or a playoff berth, time will tell. But inside the walls of the football offices, another losing season is out of the question.
Messingham said the Bobcats are on the verge.
“I stay in touch and talk with coach Choate and coach Armstrong and the Bobcat staff quite often, coach (Ty) Gregorak,” Messingham said. “When you look at their season and you see the teams they played and how many games were one-score games, I can see them very easily breaking out and winning the Big Sky Conference and being a national contender very, very soon — as soon as next year.
“I think they’re that close.”