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December 30, 2015

(STATS) - It's been so long since North Dakota State suffered a defeat in the postseason that few who were a part of it remain in the program today.

The only player remaining from that 2010 team is wide receiver Zach Vraa, whom the NCAA granted medical hardship for a sixth season of eligibility this year because he missed most of his first two seasons in a Bison uniform with broken collarbones.

The Bison have won 19 straight FCS playoff games and a record four consecutive national titles since they suffered a 38-31 overtime loss at Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals on Dec. 11, 2010.

Ironically, Vraa, the ol' man in this year's lineup, looks back on the loss positively.

"Obviously, everybody was pretty mad about how it ended," said Vraa, who was redshirted in 2010 and watched the broadcast of the game because he wasn't a member of NDSU's travel squad.

"But I think that was a real eye-opener of how good this team can be and how close we are at being in a national championship game or winning one. So I think after that year, getting as far as we did as underdogs almost all the way through, it really just showed us that if we get guys that buy into the program, practice hard, buy into what the coaches are telling us, we can do some good, successful things in the future, which happened for us."

One year after finishing 3-8 in 2009, North Dakota State received the final at-large bid to the 2010 playoffs - which was expanded from 16 to 20 qualifiers for the first time - and then beat Robert Morris at home and Montana State on the road before the loss at Eastern Washington. The quarterfinal ended with controversy as redshirt freshman quarterback Brock Jensen fumbled the ball away inside the 1-yard line as the Bison tried to tie the game in OT. Replays suggested Jensen hit the ground before the fumble, but the call was not overturned on review.

Jensen went on to help lead the Bison's first three FCS titles, and they followed with another one last season. On Jan. 9, they will try to make it five in a row - which has never happened on any NCAA level - as the third-seeded Bison (12-2) from the Missouri Valley Football Conference face top-seeded Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State (13-1) at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

Like Vraa, six members of this year's NDSU coaching staff were part of the 2010 Bison team - Tim Polasek, Nick Goesner, Brian Gordon and Jim Kramer as well as Joey Blackmore and Hank Jacobs, who both were players then.

"I'm just ecstatic that this (entire) group of guys is going back to Frisco to try to do something that's never been done and get a fifth straight national championship. Hat's off to these guys," second-year head coach Chris Klieman said.

"Our assistant coaches and our players, they're the ones that deserve all the credit because a lot of people counted these guys out. Whether it was during the season when we lost a game or lost to South Dakota, the guys in that room continued to believe, even to the point of when the (playoff) brackets came out. There weren't very many people who picked the Bison to come out on this side of the bracket - a lot of people had Illinois State to do it. Our guys thought we were going to be able to do it. And, you know what, we did. I told the guys, 'Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion.'"

Vraa has embodied that characteristic as a Bison, catching a pass in 53 of his 57 career games and setting the program's all-time records for receptions (192), receiving yards (2,925) and touchdown receptions (28).

The 23-year-old from Rosemount, Minnesota, has enjoyed being a leader on this year's team, which has a unit of mostly younger wide receivers. The 3½-year starter also embraces how the Bison have overcome adversity, reversing a season-opening loss to Montana with a rout in the playoffs and winning eight straight games since No. 1 quarterback Carson Wentz was sidelined by a wrist injury in mid-October.

Wentz, who returned to practices this month, could share snaps with redshirt freshman Easton Stick in the national championship game.

"Both guys are looking pretty good out there. I'm anxious to see who we are going to put out there, but I believe in them both," Vraa said.

Jacksonville State, he adds, has "a lot of athletic guys, transfers from big schools. They've played with the big boys and they know how to play. Just a lot of athletic guys - strong, fast, they can fly around well - so it will be a good matchup."

Vraa, who has a degree in sports management with minors in business and art, enters his final game with a slightly different perspective than his teammates.

Not all North Dakota State seasons wrap up in Frisco - although it's starting to seem that way. He lived through the Bison dynasty growing from an encouraging run in the 2010 playoffs.

"The big thing that's different for me is that I'm kind of really realizing that this is 100 percent my last year," Vraa said. "I'm kind of taking the moments and cherishing them a little bit more, trying to show the young guys that they've got to make the most of every opportunity that they have."

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