Frisco, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Many of the seniors on the North Dakota State football team might have been rooting for Eastern Washington to make it through to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game.
The seniors were freshmen in 2010 when Eastern Washington knocked the Bison out of the FCS playoffs in an overtime thriller in the national quarterfinals.
The Bison haven't lost a playoff game since then - 11 wins in a row - and on Saturday at Toyota Stadium, one final triumph would allow them to cap their careers with a third straight FCS championship.
Middle linebacker Grant Olson might have been the only North Dakota State senior rooting for Towson to beat Eastern Washington in the semifinals. And it happened one day after the Bison held up their end of the bargain for a return trip to Frisco.
Olson hasn't played since early November when he suffered a torn ACL and a Grade 1 MCL sprain in his left knee while playing against Illinois State. Had North Dakota State wound up playing Eastern Washington on Saturday, it would be bracing for a wide-open passing attack. Against Towson (13-2), the Bison (14-0) will face a lot of Terrance West and the Tigers' running game.
And that's exactly the style of offense that will help maximize Olson's courageous return to the playing field. He wasn't about to sit out his final game, injury or no injury, and he will be more effective against the run than the pass.
"It's been hurtful seeing him on the sideline," Bison All-America senior cornerback Marcus Williams said on Thursday. "But to have him back out there, our captain and the quarterback of our defense, it's going to be great."
Olson has told defensive coordinator Chris Klieman and the Bison coaches that he thinks he could play about 30 snaps against Towson. The coaches will more likely go play to play and see how much spring is in Olson's step, but the team leader will demand every last drop of effort out of himself.
"It also depends on the type of game it is," Olson said. "If it's a spread-em- out passing game, which Towson usually doesn't do but they have a little bit of, it probably wouldn't be very successful (for Olson). But if they're going to line up and try and run the football and it's going to be a downhill run game, then I can do that. It's not so far to move, and I can tackle and I can take on blocks and do some of those things."
Olson was a big loss when he suffered what basically was his first career injury. The 6-foot, 228-pounder from Minnesota, a three-year starter who opened the season as a Buck Buchanan Award candidate, was hurt on a tackle when he planted his left knee and it buckled underneath him.
The Bison defense has still dominated in Olson's absence, shutting out South Dakota in the regular season finale and then erasing three more good offenses in the playoffs. Olson, though, has still found ways to contribute in the interim - basically as an extra coach.
"Ever since I got hurt, I've been trying to contribute in terms of helping out the younger guys, helping to coach them up and things like that," Olson said. "When our starters are on the field, I can say, 'OK, guys, look at this, here's the formation, this is the play call, what's our key, what's your assignment?' The play starts, and I'm like, 'OK, did you see how they did it? You know, he's a starter for a reason because he does it well. That's how it's done.'"
"He basically sees everything," Williams said. "He'll come up to you and tell you what's going on or which play was just run or how they did this formation or how they schemed to block."
Olson, says Williams, is "so smart that he doesn't understand how smart he is at times." He's still tied for second on the team with 79 tackles despite missing the four games. Carlton Littlejohn, who has 82 tackles, has slid into the middle from his outside linebacker spot and been a star in the playoffs, but he will gladly move back if it means Olson will be patrolling the middle again.
With a win, North Dakota State would join the 2005-07 teams from Appalachian State as the second program to win three straight FCS titles.
The Bison have gone an incredible 42-2 since the start of the 2011 season. All of that success has followed the playoff loss to Eastern Washington in 2010. The Bison seniors are 13-1 overall in the playoffs over their careers, and what Olson calls his "family" has one more reunion at their home away from home.
"It's kind of one of those things that you don't truly understand it until you are a part of it," he said. "But once you're there, you get it. You're a part of it, you understand it, you realize it's something incredibly special. It's just been a privilege to be here and to play in this program, especially with such a great group of men."