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DIVISION I FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP: EASTERN WASHINGTON VS NORTH DAKOTA STATE

December 27, 2018

Chris Klieman

Frisco, Texas

J.D. HAMILTON: Congratulations, Coach Klieman, and your Bison. Can you please give us an opening comment, and we'll start with questions from the callers. Coach Klieman?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: You bet. Thanks, J.D., for having me. We're excited about going back to Frisco and playing in another National Championship game. We don't take these for granted. We know how hard they are to get there every year, and our guys have done a great job of focusing every week and continuing to get better as the season has progressed. We know we're in for a great football game with Eastern Washington.

All our guys are back today. Weather permitting, we're having a blizzard here in Fargo, so we're having some challenges, but we'll have our first post-Christmas practice this afternoon, and we'll continue on that process up until us leaving Fargo for Frisco on Wednesday, January 2nd. So with that, I'll open it up for questions.

Q. I just wanted to ask, you when took the job, obviously, it was when Craig had his opportunity taking the Wyoming job and stayed on. What have you learned to take from his experience and doing what you're doing between taking the K-State job and now?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I was a part of that process, and it was business as usual with the seniors and the football team. We had a job to do, and that was to go out and try to win a National Championship.

So I was the defensive coordinator at that time, and I'll be honest with you, I just kind of focused on what my job was, and that's what we're doing right now. Everybody has a job to do, whether you're an assistant, a player or a head coach. And we're focused on what we need to do to be successful, and that's the only way I think we know how to do it.

I've been so excited because we've had great administrative support from Matt Larsen at North Dakota State, and great administrative support from Gene Taylor at Kansas State.

Q. I guess that's what I was going to say. You've had some experience at it, and I guess it's a positive because guys are moving and getting new opportunities. So you do just have to present it like where you are now; is that correct?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Absolutely. My focus right now is to continue to prepare and help this football team try to win another National Championship, and that's the goal that was, you know, the goal at the beginning of the season, was to win the Missouri Valley Conference, and if you did that, you'd have an opportunity for success in the postseason.

Our guys have been able to do that, and now we get the big challenge of preparing for Eastern Washington over the next ten days.

Q. Last thing I have for you. Like you said, you never take these for granted because you know how hard it is to get here. But clearly you guys have become a regular in Frisco. What has it meant to have a place and how Frisco has kind of become a Fargo South at this time of the year every year?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: It's special. We know we're going to have a great contingency of fans there. The Bison Nation will travel in droves to Frisco, and our guys know that.

Everybody is excited about heading back down. The familiarity, obviously, helps. Especially our guys that have been down there multiple times, they know the routine. We have a pretty set routine that we've been doing for a long time, and so there aren't any unknowns other than for our freshmen.

So now the challenge just becomes can we design a good enough plan offensively and defensively to have success against Eastern Washington.

Q. Your running backs are dinged up in the semis. How are they?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, we'll find out more today when we get everybody back. But right before we left we thought everybody would be back and healthy. Worst-case scenario we would think by Sunday or Monday of this next week.

So unless we had some setback, I would envision everybody being available for the championship game, and I'm excited about that, because we have a lot of weapons back there and we need to utilize them all.

Q. Describe the year Tanner Volson has had.
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Phenomenal year. He's a guy that's really quarterbacked our offensive line. Makes all the calls. Really physical, athletic guy that has played his best football this year. He was dinged up a little bit last year. He's been healthy this year. And has had an All-American season. He's obviously received a bunch of awards. I just love watching what he's become since he came here as a true freshman from a nine-man school to being one of the best linemen in all of FCS.

Q. How has Eastern changed since you played them last year?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I think they're a much better team in general this year to last year. You've got to credit Coach Best. It's his second year. All the things he wanted to adjust and change to fit his style and to fit what he wanted to do as a head coach.

The guys, you can tell how much better they are offensively, defensively. Especially in the O and defensive line. That's where Coach Best has great expertise. They're much more physical than they were last year. They always have had really good athletes on both sides of the ball.

You can just tell his fingerprints and his footprint of being there in his second year has taken hold, and the guys are playing really fast and really well for him.

Q. Finally, on that note, how has Barriere fit into this system in your mind compared to Gubrud?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: He's going to utilize his legs a lot more. Gage is a tremendous football player too, but Barriere, he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his legs.

The thing that concerns us the most is when things break down, similar to when things happen on our offense and things break down, when you have a quarterback that can ad lib and make plays on his own, there are no calls for that. You know you have to have great discipline in your rush lanes. You have to do a great job of tackling.

But he's a terrific football player, and you can see his growth over the last, you know, X amount, six, eight weeks of him playing all the time, how much more confident he is now than he was earlier in the season.

Q. The 2013 team is the last FCS team to go undefeated. This team has that same chance. Compare 2013 to 2018. Are there similarities or differences to both those teams?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I think the biggest similarity is the fact that you have so many seniors. I think there was 23 in that group in 2013, I think there's 24. When you have that many seniors and spread out as well, it's not like we're dominated on one side of the ball or one position. Every level of the defense, every level of the offense has some senior leadership and guys that have been there before.

I know we're going to be compared to that team. That was a special football team, and this team has some work to do to get that last win.

But I think the biggest similarity would be the amount of seniors that have been in the program so long. You know, that's the other thing. We have so many four- and five-year guys that didn't transfer in and stuff that have just been involved and evolved as the program has.

Q. I guess you look at the quarterbacks of those teams, Brock Jensen, 48 wins; Easton Stick, 48 wins. If Easton gets a win here in Frisco, he could break that record. Compare and contrast those two quarterbacks and what has made each of them successful?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Bottom line, they're both winners. They both make everybody around them better. They both would tell you when you talk about the amount of wins, it's the team that allows them to have that success and win those games. Easton and Brock would both tell you, hey, we are 48 and whatever as opposed to they are themselves.

And I think both guys were great leaders or are great leaders, and both guys know that they're not doing this by themselves. They've had -- whether it's a great offensive line, great play calling to great defenses, it's allowed those guys to have the success they've had.

Q. Just a quick question, with everything that's gone on personally for you the last couple of weeks, on a personal side, how important is it that you get this last one right and you take that one final step, at least on the personal side for you?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, I think on a personal side I want to make sure that we do this right for the seniors and give them the opportunity to end up on top. I know it's my last game, but it's a bunch of seniors and some other folks too.

I don't see it as personally, but you know me, I don't ever think that way. I think it's just we have to do everything we can over the next nine days to give us a chance, and we can't look ahead or anything. We have a lot of work to do beginning today at three o'clock against a really good team that is playing really well, that is hungry.

The more tape I watched over Christmas break, the better they get, and that's something that is a sign of a team that you can tell how much better Eastern Washington has become as the season has progressed as well.

Q. Does your schedule keep you in Fargo the next nine days, Coach?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Absolutely.

Q. Thank you, good luck.
CHRIS KLIEMAN: You bet.

Q. Coach, you were talking about Coach Best putting his you fingerprints on the Eastern Washington program, and one of the big things is running the ball. There is so much different when you analyzed them going into the 2016 and 2017 regular season games. Can you talk about their run game?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Yeah, they obviously know that you have to run the football, and you have to be able to stop the run in order to, I think, compete and win championships.

That's something that I remember talking to Coach after we played them and before we played them last year out in Eastern Washington. He knew that running the ball was going to be their key to success. When you're able to run the football, it takes that other offense and puts them on the sideline.

They've been doing it a lot, whether it's zone stuff inside, zone stuff outside, jet sweep things. A lot of quarterback run over the last six, eight weeks. I think in that semifinal game they rushed for over 220 yards or something, and you're controlling the clock. You're controlling the game. I think we both believed that your ability to run the ball gives you the best opportunity to win the football game.

You take 500 yards throwing in the wind, but you're much better off controlling the clock, keeping the other team on the sideline and being a little bit more balanced. I think they've done a great job balancing themselves up because they still have unbelievable weapons on the outside that they can throw the ball to.

Q. When you talk to Coach Best about moving forward, was that pre or postgame?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I don't remember. We played those guys last September, so I can't remember. We had just talked a little bit before the game. I have a great deal of respect for an offensive line coach that gets his opportunity, just like I was a defensive coordinator that gets his opportunity at a place that he's made a mark at, and he's done a great job.

You can tell physicality, offense and defensive line is where I see the biggest improvement, and part of that is just the philosophy of we're going to run the football, and we're going to stop the run. And you can tell they've done a nice job of that.

Q. Because there are such high expectations both within and outside your program, what are some of the ways you and your coaching staff and the players drown out that added pressure?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: We don't probably listen to a lot of the noise and outside noise, knowing there are high expectations. Our kids embrace that. We talk about embracing the target on our back on a weekly basis. It still comes down to just preparing. If you prepare Monday through Friday, it gives you a great chance to be successful. That's the only thing we can control right now is our preparation.

If we prepare really well, we'll have a great opportunity. If we skip steps and look ahead, then we're going to be in for a long Saturday on the 5th. But we've just got to take it day by day, and continuing to just learn as much as we can about our opponent and continue to understand our game plans.

Q. Have you had a chance to sit down with Matt since he got back from Manhattan and just chat with him, and if so, what did you talk about? And I guess what I'm getting at is he's going to be the next head coach, but you're the current head coach. You said business as usual, but does he get more duties, or is it strictly the way things have been the last five years?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I think it's more how things have been. I'll bounce some things off of Matt, but you have to realize I've bounced things off of Matt ever since I hired him back in 2014 because I have so much confidence in him.

But I also was there in 2013 when I was a defensive coordinator, your hands are full with game planning and getting your tips and reminders and getting everything set. But probably no more than I ever would or ever have asked him things.

But I've always included the coaches and in particular coordinators in input. Whether it's practice plans, whether it's travel stuff, I'm the first guy to tell I don't have all the answers, so I want to make sure I get those guys involved.

So I've had many conversations with Matt, and really excited for he and his family moving forward. But we get one more game together.

Q. Some of your assistants are going with you to Kansas State. Have you needed to sit down and say, look, I know we have something else coming up down the road, but right now our focus is 100% on North Dakota State and we have to finish the job here? What's that been like?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: I haven't needed to. You're getting a chance to play in a National Championship game, ask and it's a dream come true, and some of them in multiple championship games. Our number one focus is on this football team, on these seniors. Nothing needs to be said. Everybody knows the task at hand.

Q. Any discussions about the quarterback who flipped? Was there any talk there?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Everything has been handled correctly, and there are so many layers to it that a lot of people don't have any idea what they're talking about.

Q. You mentioned everybody on hand. Does that include Lance Dunn as well? What is his status for the championship game?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Yeah, in fact, Lance practiced on Friday morning before we left, Thursday and Friday before we left. So obviously he's going to continue to get stronger as we move forward.

But he's probably the least of our concerns, to be honest with you. I want to make sure Seth comes back and Bruce comes back, who didn't practice on Thursday and Friday of last week. But I believe all signs pointed to those guys being able to practice, starting today or tomorrow and, like I said, worst-case scenario, Sunday. But I really feel comfortable we're going to have a whole complement of backs available.

Q. I also wanted to ask, how much do you think it helped, you mentioned earlier about playing last year, but the game -- playing the last two years, and I know 2016 may be forgotten, but how wild a game that was to reflect on that? There are still a lot of players on the Bison, and there are a couple guys playing in the NFL right now. To say this is -- I don't know if it's a great rivalry, but you guys have played and there have been some memorable games when these two teams have played?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Yeah, I wasn't here in 2010, and that might be the most memorable game according to a lot of people around here. But a tremendous amount of respect, I think, for both programs. Them for us, and us for them. As far as being able to continue to sustain and be competitive on the national level.

You're right, the 2016 game was a phenomenal game that was back and forth and won in overtime. And 2017, although the score probably didn't indicate it, it was a really competitive game into the fourth quarter, and then we were able to make some plays.

So our guys know that this is an exceptional team that is -- that is a different team for sure this year than it was in '16 and '17, schematically and personnel-wise, that we have to play our best football to have an opportunity to be successful.

Q. First and foremost, the red-shirt rule, how do you think that's helped you guys so far through the playoffs, and how many guys do you think might be playing that wouldn't have been able to play in the championship with that red-shirt rule?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, if it didn't help us in this game, it helped us throughout the season. And I think we've played ten or 12 guys that have that four-game rule that we could utilize.

I look at -- one I could point to is Dimitri Williams still has his fourth game. We played him early in the season, and then held him out. So he'll be able to give us some special teams depth and help us there, because he's played at that high level on special teams.

There's a few guys like that, that whether or not they'll be a starter or not or a contributor, they'll at least be in our mix of our top 70. But it's been a great rule that has helped us immensely as far as -- Seth Wilson is a great example. He can play in this last one and still retain a year of eligibility, which is awesome for that young man that has been banged up all year.

Q. The reason for success for North Dakota State doing this so many years, what is the blueprint, so to speak, or what can you put your thumb on to say this is why you guys have had so much success heading down to Frisco?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Oh, boy, there's a lot of things. But it starts with really good football players and those guys buying into the routine and the plan that the coaches lay out, holding each other to a high standard and accountable to make sure that each guy is preparing himself to be successful on a daily basis. That's what it's going to take over the next ten days to make sure we have a chance to be successful.

Q. I know you compared some of the things Barriere does to your own quarterback. Are there guys you've played this year or in the last couple years that you would compare him to and why?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Oh, boy. I think he has his own unique skill set, probably different from some of the other ones. I can't pinpoint a guy that I would look at that I would compare him to.

I just have been so impressed with his growth and development throughout the long haul of the season, and how much better and more comfortable he looks coming out of the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, or making decisions, and knowing when, okay, I can tuck it and get ten, get out of bounds, protect myself or cut it back up and make a big play.

I guess I've been really impressed in watching him over the last few days of how well he throws the football on the run. A lot of guys, once they scramble out, boy, they're just taking off and running. I think he's done a really nice job and continuing to do a great job of keeping his eyes down field and making the great throw on the run.

That's the thing that anytime you play a quarterback that can do those things, like I said, the call doesn't necessarily matter. You could be in a great call, but all of a sudden things break down and great players make plays.

I see Barriere the same way as I see Stick, things break down, and everybody's like, okay, things break down and let's see what these guys can do. That's the benefit of having a guy that can beat you with his legs as well as with his arm.

Q. We talked about the backs a little bit, but last year you were, Geez, who is going to start at corner. Is this about as healthy as you've been going into Frisco?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Probably. Dating back to losing, even like the Grant Olsons and some of those guys in the past, and Hiegl [phonetic] and Bryan Shepherd, we've lost a lot of guys. We still have to get through a number of practices here. So I'm going to knock on wood that we get through all the practices healthy.

But overall, probably pretty close.

Q. How important is a guy like Jabril Cox when the other team has a quarterback like Barriere? He's chased Bryan Schor around in the championship game, he chased Christian around in the semifinal. Is Jabril kind of a weapon that you think you'll use in that way in Frisco?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Yeah, I would assume it will be part of the package as we move forward. Obviously, the big key will be just the front four with all the rotating guys of defensive linemen that we'll put in the game. I think it's more important that you have fresh bodies up front because he's going to have them running around for a while. All of a sudden, you get exhausted, and you're out there, you're not going to catch him.

So we have to do a great job of continuing to move as many bodies in and out of there to try to keep fresh bodies and try to keep him. You're not going to stop him. You just try to keep him contained and eliminate the explosive play.

Q. You have so many wonderful memories here obviously. Is it sometimes difficult to not catch yourself being a little reflective, or are you so darn busy that it's hard to kind of drink it in?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: We're so busy in that respect, but I know this: I'm smart enough to realize this is my last chance to go down to Frisco. More importantly for me, with 24 seniors that I helped bring in here with a lot of other help, bring these guys in, and I'm going to enjoy the journey. I'm going to enjoy the journey with those guys and have some fun as well.

I mean, there's the pressures of the game and those things, but my last opportunity, just like it is every year with a group of seniors, but this one being the fact that this is our first class, for the most part. All of us coaches, we know this is our last swan song with this group of seniors.

Q. You've obviously earned an opportunity to go to Frisco and that Dallas area a number of times. Looking forward, how much could you project that perhaps helping you out with coaches in that area, and the brand you've built up by being so successful and playing in Frisco so many times?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, I sure hope so. I think the brand and the name is pretty strong down there, and moving forward for North Dakota State or Kansas State, I think it will be an area that both schools will utilize in recruiting, and I know how important that is in the Big 12. Obviously our success down there and our brand, just the fact that North Dakota State has been down there so often, has been very, very helpful.

Q. You mentioned the emergence of Eastern Washington's run game. The fact that they were so pass heavy when you played them in 2016 with Cooper and those guys, is it surprising to you that they've been able to kind of change their identity so quickly in a matter of two seasons and run the ball for 207 yards a game like they are?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: That's what makes Aaron Best so impressive, is he put his fingerprints on that thing so quickly. To say for us to continue to evolve and continue to progress in the playoffs, and Eastern Washington is no different than North Dakota State, you want to have a great regular season, but you're judged by what you do in the postseason. He knew he had to be able to run the football to sustain this long-term in the playoffs.

I'm not surprised at all, because he's a tremendous offensive line coach, and he brings physical toughness, mentality to the game. The guys have bought into it. You can tell that.

Q. On that note, they lost in the semis to power run teams like Illinois State, Youngstown State. So it's kind of delayed the match-up that so many people wanted for so long, North Dakota State versus Eastern Washington. What do you think of now coaching your last game at North Dakota State against probably the premier West Coast team in the FCS?
CHRIS KLIEMAN: It will be really cool. No matter who you play in the championship, it's going to be a great football team. Obviously they did a tremendous job getting through their bracket. They're a great football team, and they've been a perennial power for years and years and years, and I'm excited about the challenge. I know our guys are as well.

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