January 5, 2018
THE MODERATOR: Chris, congratulations on getting back here.
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Give us an overview.
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Absolutely. We're excited to be back. Love the hospitality we have in Frisco. It was a goal of ours at the beginning of the season that, if we had a chance to win the Missouri Valley Conference, we have an opportunity to fulfill a dream and a goal of coming back to Frisco and competing for a National Championship.
Can't say enough about the seniors and the captains and the four guys in front of us here. What a great leadership job they did, especially through a lot of adversity we had. We just kept attacking the adversity and never letting the adversity get to us and just keep finding a way. We had a lot of guys contribute to this team, and it wasn't just star players. We had some star players, but we had a roster full of guys that bought in and did what they had to do to help the football team each Saturday to give us an opportunity to play in this great game.
So we're excited to be here. We know we're playing a great opponent in James Madison. We think it's going to be a great four quarter football game. I'll open it up for questions.
Q. Easton, two years ago, you got the Bison to this game and weren't able to play. What's it like for you to be back here starting under center?
EASTON STICK: Really excited for an opportunity to play in this game. It was a really good team in 2015, and to me, it's probably a little more special this year just because of the relationships that I have with the senior class. It's a big class and a group that's meant a lot to our program. So excited for an opportunity to compete with those guys one more time.
Q. Tre, do you feel a little rivalry building with James Madison, just from what's happened last year and then playing them again this year?
TRE DEMPSEY: Not really. We only played them one time since I've been here. I wouldn't consider that a rivalry. I would just say they beat us last year, and we're looking to take our title back.
Q. Austin, there's some video of you with your elbow circulating out there. What's the story on that?
AUSTIN KUHNERT: Third play of the game, red zone, fell on it funny or whatever. As I got up, I noticed I couldn't move it hardly. Just rotated it in, and it popped, and it felt better after that. So it's good to go.
Q. Nick, kind of reflect on last year, expecting that to be your final year, and then going through the injury, getting to come back for this final season and everything you guys have accomplished, and kind of going out with your recruiting class.
NICK DELUCA: Yeah, it's kind of crazy to think that I came full circle there. No, just really excited for the opportunity to come back this year. It's been a pleasure playing alongside these guys. Our defense, I thought, has been playing at a really high level lately. We're looking to go out on top.
Q. Easton, can you talk about how you feel as far as going into this game? Taking a look at how you felt maybe last year playing against these guys, your preparation level, your confidence level coming in.
EASTON STICK: I think it's something similar in that we played a Friday night game a year ago. It's a short week in a semifinal game like that. So obviously, with more time to prepare, you're able to look at more things, more time to develop a game plan and then become comfortable with it. So I think both sides of the ball, special teams, and I think they said the same way, just helps having more time to prepare.
Q. Tre, I just wanted to ask you, you're going through a lot of lasts this week -- last practice, last walk-through, last road trip, last game. Are you taking it in? Do you think about it? Are you trying not to think about it going into the Championship, knowing this is kind of it for you?
TRE DEMPSEY: Kind of both. I'm taking it in, but just trying to focus on the game. But that experience that we just had out there with the old players coming back and stuff like that, when I came my sophomore year, it was kind of different for me. I was like, oh, it's pretty awesome. But it really meant a lot to me going out there just then and talking to all them. If we didn't have this, I'd probably still be out there talking to them now.
But it was great. I've just been taking it all in. Ready to get out there, though, and focusing.
Q. Easton, these defensive backs in the secondary for James Madison, do they match up with like an Iowa that you've prepared for? Is this as good of a defensive back group as you've seen in prep?
EASTON STICK: It's a really talented group, a group that's played a lot of football together, you can tell. They're always on the same page. They communicate really well together. You can tell they play a lot of snaps. They do a really good job of rotating guys, the two corner spots and guys playing nickel and things like that. It's a really talented group, and we definitely have our hands full.
Q. Nick, can you speak to Austin's toughness. I don't know if you've ever dislocated your elbow and popped it back in on the next play, but what about the toughness?
NICK DELUCA: Yeah, our guys definitely pride themselves in being tough, and Austin's a great representation of that. I personally never had to do that. Dr. Piatt popped my shoulder back in for me. I don't do it myself. There's some tough dudes, no doubt.
Q. Nick, I just wanted to follow up on something Tre said, he made a comment, we're here to take our title back. Is there a collective -- I don't know if anger is the right way, but coming down here feeling like you have something to prove. Just a little chip on your shoulder coming down to this game after how it went last year against these guys?
NICK DELUCA: No question. We feel like we're entitled to it just as much as they are. We want to go out on top. There's no doubt it's a collective effort. All these guys want to play and go out on top. So we're definitely ready.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions for Coach Klieman.
Q. Chris, Easton touched on it, but this is completely different than a short week prep to a three-week prep. What did you guys do differently as a staff to get ready for these guys with a game against them on film and really having three weeks to go over everything?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Obviously, we were able to spend more time. We were able to spend the week after the semifinal game focusing on getting a game plan ready as if we were playing that next week. I thought that was really productive for our staff to get that in place. Had a few practices, and then obviously gave them some time off. They needed to get away.
Then when we came back after Christmas, just kind of continuing to fine tune a lot of the things. When you have that much time, some people can say you overanalyze and stuff, but we looked at every game over the last two years that they had played and formulated a game plan off of about maybe eight or ten opponents. But looked at everything to see how they'd react or how we'd react. Because we have to do a great job of trying to find ways to crack this defense, just like I think they have to find ways to try to crack our defense.
You're talking about the two best defenses in FCS without question. I mean, it's not even close. So it's going to come down to who can manipulate running the football and who can make some explosive plays.
Q. Easton Stick started at quarterback for you guys in the semifinal. Should we expect any changes at quarterback, you know, surprises at all?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: No, my man Easton's going to tee it up tomorrow, and I'm excited for him. He's going to have a great opportunity. No one prepares like Easton Stick. We have a lot of guys that do unbelievable preparation, but everybody up here on this table would tell you he's still a 4.0 student, but son of a gun, he's there from 8:00 in the morning until 1:00. I don't know if he's got a 10:00 and 11:00 class, Dr. Bresciani, but he's there all day long preparing. It doesn't matter if it's September 1 or if it's December 29, he's there all day long preparing.
So he's earned this right to play in this Championship Game. I'm excited for him.
Q. Chris, I probably haven't asked you about this since early in the season, but Courtney Messingham is now 14 games into this, and obviously you guys have known each other a long time. What has he meant, I guess, and what has he brought now that he's had this offense for essentially a full season?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Mess and I have a great relationship. When Tim left -- and Tim did a phenomenal job for us, Coach P. He left, and I had an opportunity to hire Coach Messingham. A lot of people potentially agree, don't agree with it. When you can hire your best friend in this profession, a guy you grew up with, played Little League baseball with, went to college with, kind of went our separate ways but always stayed in contact.
I know -- forget X's and O's. The guy is a phenomenal football coach, but just the character of the man, a family man, a guy that does an unbelievable job preparing. Each week we've developed more and more offensively, and he's integrated more and more of his ideas as the season's gone along. He didn't come in and make wholesale changes. He just implemented things, you know, a little bit in the spring, a little bit in the fall, and now throughout the season.
I think the offensive guys would tell you just how much we've continued to evolve offensively. I think we've gotten better offensively. That's a sign of a good football team is you continue to improve.
But just from a personal note, to bring a guy in that you've been around since you were 7, 8 years old, it's a special time. We're not getting any younger. So for us to be able to have that opportunity and spend it together and have this run and have a chance for a National Championship, I'm just thrilled for Courtney.
Q. Dom, Jalen, and Jaylaan, do you know kind of where you're going to be as far as availability with your defensive backs and what you'd like to do?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: We're going to warm up a lot of guys and talk to Doc Piatt and Bobby and see who we think can go, and we'll have everybody on a game-time decision.
Q. Chris, on a national stage at this point, do you still get that FBS question, about moving to the FBS much?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I don't get it as much as Matt Larsen or Dean Bresciani gets it, but I hope we don't. I love the stage we're on. In time, maybe it will happen, but I think it's because the Power Five's going to branch off, and it's a group of five and whatever FCS teams can come to that level. I think that's probably down the road somewhere. But I don't get it personally, no.
Q. When you look at some of these lower tier Bowl games, does that give you pause to think when you compare it to this run you're on?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Absolutely. I love the playoff run and wouldn't change it for anything. I know the people of Frisco, I don't know how many they had for the Bowl game out there, but I know we're going to have a bigger crowd at Toyota stadium than they had for the Bowl season a couple weeks ago.
I think the Bowl season is great. I think it's great for everybody to have an opportunity to participate and everyone to play in a Bowl game and continue to develop young players and stuff. But for us right now, North Dakota State, the playoff system works, and we really enjoy it. I think our fans really like it too. I think, if you had a Bowl game, that would start to get watered down maybe as, oh, we're not going to as good of a Bowl game. You're always going to the same playoff system. Now what do you do when you get to the playoffs.
Q. Chris, defensively, where does this unit rank? You and I talked preseason. They had a chance to be really special. Is this the best you've had maybe?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: It's pretty close. That 2013 defense was tough. I saw a lot of guys out there at the alumni gathering. When you see Marcus and Kyle and Cole and Colton, boy, there's some great players that are playing at the next level. But we've continued to improve this year. I think we're deeper in the defensive line although we rotated a lot of guys in 2013. That would be the closest thing to compare it to in the years I've been here.
But we're deeper in the defensive line. We don't have maybe a Kyle Emanuel who's going to have 15 sacks or something. But just we're playing really fast and playing really well together. We'll have a huge challenge because JMU is a really talented offense.
Q. Coach, you talked about not having a Kyle Emanuel. You kind of had one in Greg Menard, or you should have going into this season. Talk a little bit about how the pass rush unit has developed from Game one to now in the National Championship Game.
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Yeah, you lose an All-American like Greg, somebody's got to step up, and multiple guys have stepped up. We're excited for Greg. He's going to have an opportunity to play again next year. But the Tuszka brothers, Caleb, Stanley, our inside guys have stepped up. We're able to rotate, keep guys fresh. We probably aren't going to have that guy that has multiple sacks or double digit sacks and stuff, but we've been relentless. We've done a really nice job pressuring the passer.
I think the key for us tomorrow is not so much the sacks, it's just keeping Schor contained. He's such a dangerous guy out of the pocket, stepping up into the pocket. That's going to be the whole key to the game is can we keep him from making the explosive play by the scramble?
Q. I'll ask you the same question as I asked Tre. Do you feel there's a rivalry growing between these two programs because you're at the top level? Both schools are pretty darn good?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I've had that question asked of me, and I appreciated Tre's answer as well. No, there's a tremendous amount of respect that I have for Coach Houston and the JMU team, but not necessarily a rivalry because we don't play them the way we do a valley team and multiple times during the year because of a playoff system.
Just I have a tremendous amount of respect for how JMU does it -- how they play defense, how they run the football. Now, if this continues on, and God willing, we continue to both have great programs, maybe that will potentially happen. But two times, not quite, but maybe down the line.
Q. Going back to injuries, Coach, what does it say about this team to overcome all these setbacks and make it back here?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: We talked about it after the first time Greg got hurt. Greg got hurt the first day of practice, Menard did, with a torn ACL. I think we've had seven, eight, nine torn ACLs this year, and we're going to be upwards of 20, 25 surgeries at the end of the year. We talked about it and said, mediocre teams get destroyed when adversity hits. Good teams survive it. Great teams get better because of it. Our guys became better each week because of the adversity we faced.
Every one of these guys has been in that position. Nick DeLuca had to come in and play when we lost Carlton. Tre Dempsey had to come in and play when we lost C.J. Easton Stick had to come in when we lost Carson. That's NDSU football. That's the culture of a championship program when the next guy up has the ability to play just as much at a high level and his brothers are counting on him.
That's the thing. That's the brotherhood that it's hard to explain, but it's so fun to see these guys handle the adversity.
Q. Chris, what have you picked up on from your guys over the last couple of weeks and their excitement level and having another chance to play on this James Madison team?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: When we came in after the Sam Houston win in the semifinals, and we're screaming in the locker room winter camp, winter camp, because we know we have the opportunity to spend three more weeks together and to grind and we're in pads. It's tough. When you're a true freshman and you usually are done by Halloween, and now the first of the year happens, and you're still in pads, that's a long season.
But our guys embrace it. That's one of the models we had. Embrace the target on your back. We've embraced that. It's just, when you have guys like Nick and Tre and Austin, and I'll get Easton again next year, but when you have guys like that to spend every opportunity we can with these guys. I know how blessed I am because these guys are terrific football players, and President Bresciani knows it, Matt Larsen knows it.
They are better individuals. They are better individuals. What they do in our community, what they do community service, how they handle the kids at the Miracle League last night, that's what makes me the most proud.
Q. I got to ask you, Kirby Smart's playing in the National Championship. I know you spoke at Georgia. Second time in three years you spoke at a team that's playing for the National Championship. Do you believe they're shared ideas and vice versa? You're taking stuff from Clemson and Georgia and vice versa?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I'd like to think so, but I don't know if Kirby would say that. It would be interesting. But, no, I was able to speak at Georgia. We were able to share a lot of good ideas. I had an opportunity one-on-one with Kirby. I have a good friend that's an offensive analyst, Jay Johnson, that's on that staff. Played with him in college as well. It's neat to be associated with those programs.
I had an opportunity to text back and forth with Coach Swinney before they played in their semifinal game. Because of the success we've had at North Dakota State -- and I always say we've had at North Dakota State -- it's provided myself a number of those opportunities. And it's due to these guys. It's due to these guys that I have the chance to have some of those opportunities.
THE MODERATOR: Chris, thank you. Good luck tomorrow.
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