January 4, 2016
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Happy New Year and thank you very much for joining us on this call this afternoon as we prepare for the 2016 NCAA Division I Football Championship game this Saturday in Frisco, Texas, between Jacksonville State and North Dakota State. Again, kickoff will be at 11:01 central on ESPN2. At this time we first have Coach Klieman from North Dakota State.
Coach, can you just give us an opening statement and talk about your preparations for this weekend's game?
COACH KLIEMAN: You bet. Well, good afternoon. We're excited about the challenge we have in another five days of competing for another National Championship. We've had a good preparation. We brought the guys back last Monday at this time and had a good week of practice and gave yesterday off, and now we have a couple more practices here in Fargo before we ship on down to Frisco. But we know it's going to be an outstanding football game. We've got a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Grass and Jacksonville State and follow them. They've got a great program and great football team, and we're looking forward to a heck of a championship game next Saturday.
So with that, I'll open it up for questions.
Q. Coach, it seems like going to Frisco is something that every player on your team has gotten used to. I don't think you've got a player on your team that hasn't done that. What does that specious do for you and the expectation to be here? I know you've got the work that you do, but that expectation each year to kind of come through with it?
COACH KLIEMAN: Yeah, we have high expectations here as a lot of programs have high expectations. You know, we don't talk about getting to this point at all during the season until we get to that semifinal game, and that's maybe clichÃ©, but it is what it is. We just concentrate on winning each day and attacking the process that gives us an opportunity to win each Saturday. You know, the experience factor, I think where it would help us is just because we're familiar with the surroundings and familiar with where the practice fields and the hotel and that stuff, but I don't know how much that's going to help us at 11:00 o'clock on Saturday. It still comes down to executing against an exceptional football team.
Q. One other question I have for you, obviously, Easton's done a tremendous job since he had to come in for Carson. Just talk about what Houston has done for you guys?
COACH KLIEMAN: Well, Easton's been phenomenal. We knew the stage wasn't too big for Easton when he took over. I think on October 24th. He came to compete for championships and have an opportunity to lead our football team. It just happened to be earlier than any of us anticipated with Carson getting injured during the middle of his senior year. So Easton has been dynamite.
He's a really smart kid. He's got tremendous athleticism. He's an excellent thrower. He's stepped in and done a phenomenal job leading us to eight straight victories. We're excited where Easton's at right now, and being a red-shirt freshman, where the future is for that position. As far as Carson is concerned, we'll all find out on Saturday whether he'll play or not. He's not been cleared yet and we'll continue to progress.
Q. Wanted to get your impressions of Jacksonville State from watching them on film?
COACH KLIEMAN: Obviously, extremely talented. I don't see a weakness. Offensively they're extremely balanced with the ability to run the football, with the great running back as well as the quarterback. Been really pleased with their passing game and how electric the receivers are. They're not one-dimensional. They can beat you in so many multitude of ways offensively that they put up, obviously tons of points and tons of yards all season. Then defensively just very aggressive up front.
I've been so impressed with their defense as a whole. Then the front four, in my opinion, just stands out because of how aggressive they are. They're a well-seasoned defense as well with a lot of upperclassmen that have played a lot of football for them. And we'll have our hands full trying to move the ball against those guys as well as trying to stop them.
Q. Last week in progress, what was Carson able to do well in your eyes?
COACH KLIEMAN: Craig, he's just continuing to progress. He's throwing some seven on seven and that's kind of the extent of it right now. I'm really not going to get into it anymore what he's done, which is just throw a little bit of seven on seven, and we're continuing to be hopeful that he has an opportunity to play. But we'll find out as the week progresses.
Q. If you do put him on the roster for Saturday, would he take the spot of another quarterback?
COACH KLIEMAN: Yes, we've had a true freshman that we've traveled and dressed ever since Carson got hurt in James Hendricks, and that's obviously either he or James will dress.
Q. I know Easton's been very gracious about Carson being a senior and obviously grace willing to see Carson play and Easton's done terrific. Can you talk about the relationship between the two of them? Here it is the biggest game of the year, and they have great respect for each other.
COACH KLIEMAN: You bet. That's kind of the epitome of our program and of Easton Stick of the kind of kid he is. And what we try to preach to our guys is play for each other. Play for your brother next to you. Easton benefited last year as a red-shirt freshman of being able to travel with us all the time and being able to learn from Carson and being around him.
When Carson got hurt, to Carson's credit, he stuck with Easton every week and watched film with him and was on the sideline on the head set and visiting with him before and after before series and after series. The two have so much respect for each other. I thought there was a really neat article last week of Easton wanting to continue to keep winning to give Carson the outside chance to play.
Q. You touched on Jacksonville State a few minutes ago. I think a lot of people look at this as the power of North Dakota State, what you guys do versus the speed of Jacksonville State. In some ways that may be deceptive because you both have a little bit of both aspects. Can you talk about what's similar about these two teams and what is different about the two teams?
COACH KLIEMAN: Well, I think what I see from a similarity is the recipe, in my mind, to be successful at any level, but for sure where we're at in North Dakota State is you need to be able to run the football and you need to be able to stop the run.
I think Jacksonville State does a phenomenal job of running the football, however that may be, whether it's with the quarterback, whether it's with the tailback, however you want to look at it. If you're able to run the football and able to stop the run, which they're able to do, and we've shown over the course of time that we've been able to do, I think that's a recipe for success.
That's where I think both teams are really similar. They're extremely well coached. Coach Grass does a phenomenal job coaching these guys. You can tell they're a disciplined, well-coached football team.
Q. One last one. Your team has always been so good with halftime adjustments and just really putting teams away when you have a lead. What makes your program do that so well with punching somebody in the face and putting them down?
COACH KLIEMAN: Well, our halftime adjustments, obviously, you've got to credit our coaching staff and our players to be able to understand what those adjustments are and being able to go out and execute in the second half. But if you'd look at our track record, if you're able to hold on to the football 35-plus minutes, and time of possession we're over 36 or around there for the season, if you're able to have the football for that long, you can potentially wear a team down, and that's the recipe for us. We need to be able to hold on to the football.
We've played some great offense in the playoffs, this is the best offense we've faced in the playoffs. We need to have those guys on the sideline which gives us a better opportunity to be successful. Our adjustments at halftime are usually continue to try to run the ball and stop the run and try to maintain time of possession.
Q. I want to ask you about the defensive effort particularly here in the playoffs. You played some pretty good offensive teams throughout the season. Just talk about what's come together on your defense and what's made that so good this year?
COACH KLIEMAN: We're playing a lot of new guys on defense. We have really four returning starters from last year, and both of them were defensive tackles and corners, which, if you want to start with a successful defense, you have corners and D-tackles. But all the guys that are new players, we struggled early in the season, and part of that was more inexperience and less talent. I think we had some talented guys, but they weren't experienced at their position, and more specifically, weren't experienced playing with each other.
We went through some growing pains. Ever since, I would say about the time middle to late October, our guys started to understand each other's strengths out on the field and understand where they fit within that defense. And they learned our defense throughout that course of the playoffs. Then, obviously, once we got into the playoffs, having the familiarity of playing Montana, no question, helped us. Having the familiarity of playing Northern Iowa helped us, and our guys played at a really high level.
I'm so impressed. I think Nick DeLuca, our inside linebacker, is one of the top defensive players in all of FCS, and he doesn't get the credit, because he's really a first-year starter, although he started every playoff game for us last year. He's a phenomenal football player at 6'3", 245 pounds that can run like he can as a linebacker. He's really the quarterback of our defense and has had just an exceptional season.
Q. Two years ago, a couple years ago when you took this job you were taking over a team that's had success. How much different do you feel now in this job with two seasons behind you as the head coach? I know you've been around, but as head coach here?
COACH KLIEMAN: First thing is last year was so remarkable with losing the amount of seniors that we did from that 2013 team, losing 26 guys and many of those kids are playing in the NFL, but more importantly, losing all the assistant coaches. To be able to do what we did in 2014 with a brand-new staff and losing all those seniors is something that I think was really remarkable.
What's helped us this year, we didn't lose a coach. So we have great stability within our program from a coaching standpoint. So this year everybody knew where they were going to be. Everybody kind of knew as coaches their strengths and weaknesses. It's been really rewarding watching these guys.
This has been a lot of adversity this year that everybody knows about when we lost the first game against Montana, and we went out there and they just flat beat us. People thought, well, the Bison are probably done. Then when Carson Wentz got hurt, I would have said most people didn't think this team probably was going to maybe even get to the playoffs, let alone make a run. Our guys are pretty resilient bunch, and I think that's where some of that experience maybe pays off that they came together on October 17th after we lost a game and lost Carson Wentz that we're going to continue to push this thing forward and make a run, and they did.
Q. Coach, we've obviously covered your last two games and specialty teams were a big factor in both games. Can you just talk a little bit about how it will need to be a factor on Saturday, and what you worked on in practice leading up to it? Especially the punting game and the kick return game?
COACH KLIEMAN: You bet. We emphasized the heck out of special teams. It's paid dividends for us so far in the playoffs. For us, with the style of offense that we are of kind of a grind-it-out team, we need to be able to flip the field with field position. We've been fortunate that Bruce Anderson, as a true freshman has stepped up as a kick returner and Eric Perkins as a punt returner had a big play a few weeks ago against Richmond. So we always feel we need to flip the field.
From the punt team and kickoff standpoint, I just can't say enough about Ben LeCompte, Ben LeCompte, I knew he was first team All-American on a number of ones, but he should have been first team All-American on every pool. He's the best punter and kicker combination I've seen, and it's proven out over the playoffs when he was the MVP of our Northern Iowa game.
But it's such a big weapon to have Ben LeCompte back there. We're excited that he's going to get a chance to play this last game. We've kind of adjusted some of the things we've done in practice to try to shore up the one thing that we've not done really well in the playoffs, and that's kicking field goals. We're hoping that we've kind of squared that away.
Q. Coach, you mentioned earlier, the weapons Jacksonville State has on offense. Have you faced an offense this season with the tackle like Jacksonville State has?
COACH KLIEMAN: Probably not as a whole, Mike. When you talk about the versatility of all three positions, the quarterback, running back and wide receiver, no, we haven't. And that's the huge challenge. That's the other thing, Mike. We know how good Jacksonville State is, but until you get on the field and you have those first few hits and you see the speed of the game, it's hard to really understand.
Whereas, we played Montana in the first round, we played Northern Iowa in the second round, we played those guys before. Even Richmond, at least we had a like opponent there in the fact that we played Illinois State the year before. So we had some idea. But it's hard when you look at Jacksonville State because we don't have any like opponent. I guess you could say Sam from the year before, but our guys don't know much about Sam Houston as compared to Illinois State. So without question this is the best total team offensively as well as defensively that we've played defensively this year.
Q. Coach, how much do you think the experience advantage of having played in a championship game will play into this one?
COACH KLIEMAN: Nothing once 11 o'clock hits. It really won't. Once 11 o'clock hits, it's going to be two really good football teams going at it, and I think it's going to be a great four-quarter game.
The only thing that I think the experience does is our guys know what they're getting into when we head down to Frisco. They know the routine. They know the practice. They know where the stadium's at. They know the walk from the stadium to the field. All those things are little things that maybe take some of the nerves away. But it's going to play no factor once we kick that thing off at 11 o'clock against a great football team.
Q. Could you talk about what the atmosphere is like at Frisco and how you guys travel as well as you do and what that means to you and your team?
COACH KLIEMAN: Well, North Dakota State football is unbelievable up here in this area. We don't have a professional team in the state. So our state, our region kind of gravitates toward North Dakota State football. You see our tailgate lots, you see our game day atmosphere, it's dynamite. I know Jacksonville State has an exceptional environment as well.
Our fans, I just can't say enough about them, Bison Nation follows us wherever we go. Doesn't matter if we're going to Western Illinois, or South Dakota State to play a game or playing at home or like we've been able to do, go to Frisco. It is so neat knowing you're going to have upwards of 20,000 people traveling down to see you. Whether or not they get in the game or not, who knows, but I know they're all going to be down there.
For our guys, I think that's a comforting factor knowing that we're going to walk out and see a sea of green, a sea of gold out there in that stadium. I'm so blessed. I'm so fortunate to be the head coach here. That's part of the reason that I wanted to stay. I think it's one of the best jobs in FCS, and the biggest reason it is is because of our great support not only from our administration but the fans in our community.
Q. Coach, you mentioned earlier that when Carson got hurt the team showed resilience and your experience paid off. After that first game you just took off as a team together again. How much apprehension though did you have to deal with as a team from the players and the coaches leading up to Easton's first start?
COACH KLIEMAN: Well, obviously, we didn't know how Easton was going to respond. We knew his abilities, which is an electric athlete that we think is pretty good throwing the football. But you don't know until the guy gets into a situation how he's going to respond.
But I also know if you're an offensive guy or older guy, you saw how that kid prepared every week. Whether he was a starter or not. I don't care if it was the Montana game or the UND or whomever else, even though he probably wasn't going to play because Carson was our guy, he prepared and watched film and had himself ready to go every week.
That was really, I think unique in the fact of our upperclassmen. Like this kid's ready to go. This kid has not missed a beat. He's prepared to be in this environment. Then obviously, we needed to step up on defense, because we had not played exceptionally well in the previous game on defense. For us to be successful, we needed to be able to alleviate some of that stress on a freshman quarterback by playing better on defense. We really kind of took off not only on defense but as well as our guys up front offensively.
Q. Sure, the last two playoff games, the quarterfinals and semifinals, did your program actually seek medical clearance or did you not seek medical clearance during those weeks? Obviously, Carson didn't play either time?
COACH KLIEMAN: We didn't have medical clearance, that's the bottom line. He visited with the doctor on a weekly basis. We didn't have medical clearance.
Q. Just wanted to ask you about the winter camp concept. That phrase keeps coming up in player interviews and you as well. Just what that whole mindset is as it pertains to this playoff period of your season?
COACH KLIEMAN: Every player knows football season's a grind. Once you get into the playoffs, it's win and advance, lose and go home. Our guys just kind of took to the motto a few years ago that we're heading into winter camp, no different than you head into fall camp, even if you head into spring football and stuff.
I think we do a really good job of utilizing the time that we have on this three weeks off of not only getting our guys fresh, but working with the younger guys to hopefully give those guys a little bit more experience learning our systems offensively and defensively. It's just kind of a model that our kids have taken a liking to. It's kind of a blue-collar attitude and demeanor our guys have in this program.
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