Tim Polasek is paid to hold the most scrutinized coordinating job in college football. In a day and age of high-powered passing offenses, he’s retained the brand of Bison football generations of fans have grown to love.
In his second year as the offensive coordinator, Tim Polasek overcame the biggest hurdle any leader of the offense could face. The Bison were set to be one of the most explosive offenses in the FCS. They were spoiled with the amount of talent returning at the skill positions and they had a quarterback poised to become an NFL Draft darling. The offense started out of the gates as if it was determined to rewrite the NDSU history books, scoring more than 31 points per game through the first six games.
The scoring-at-will mentality continued during an unseasonably warm afternoon in mid-October against a program that’s become NDSU’s little brother over the past decade – the University of South Dakota. NDSU quickly drove the ball with ease, manufacturing two scoring drives in the first quarter to gain an early 14-0 lead.
What Bison Nation didn’t know, as they celebrated Carson Wentz touchdown to freshman wide receiver Darrius Shepherd, was their quarterback, Wentz, completed the pass with a broken wrist. The injury only got worse, as the ailing Wentz and the Bison offense sputtered, eventually falling 24-21 to a team that hadn’t won in Fargo since 1978.
The next day, the offensive coordinator learned the fate of his starting quarterback and called a meeting with his other offensive coaches – quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg, wide receivers coach Atif Austin, offensive line coach Conor Riley and tight end and fullbacks coach Tyler Roehl – to determine what the would look like with freshman Easton Stick at the helm.
Tim Polasek: It’s not like we sat there and said, “Okay guys, we have to open up another (play)book, it’s a whole new set of plays.” What happened initially, and I haven’t admitted this, but there’s a portion of the playbook that wasn’t going to be called or that we weren’t going to put him in those situations. Obviously, Easton (Stick) is slower to trigger the field throws – the two or three Carson completed this week (against Jacksonville State) – than Carson would be. Carson is going to get to the field and throw that ball because he has super confidence, through all five years of reps that he’s had. Immediately, you know you’re going to lose that part of it. Maybe you start building the pass-game inside-out a little bit more than outside-in.
Initially, (the) reaction and emotion with it, I told the offensive guys, “Take five minutes. But when we come back in the room, we’re going to find a way to win.” Coach Riley and some of those guys talked about it not being a really fun week for all those guys. I thought subconsciously, and consciously just being me, we cranked the intensity up even in our own room. For a three or four week span, I wasn’t pleasant to be around, but there’s a lot of unknowns and that’s maybe the thing that’s stood out answering questions about this topic and it’s okay to say to you guys, the media, it’s going to be a learning process for us as much as it is for Easton. We have to learn about our trigger guy.
Normally, the guy who steps in and starts, you’ve seen two or three Spring Games, you’ve seen five to 10 scrimmages and we didn’t have that luxury. All I can tell you is, and you hear us coaches say it over and over again, “Attacking the process.” There’s gotta be some trust in the process, too. We know that Easton has been through most reps than most backup quarterbacks with the way we practice and how we do things. Therefore, we simply said, “(The) young man has got to be ready to go. We’re going to have to play it by ear.” We were going to have to get the kid on the move a little bit more to make it more of a half-field sequence in his progression.
Stick relieved the senior starter valiantly by going on the road for back-to-back tough Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents. The Bison came away with two victories to move their record to 6-2, and Stick posted two consecutive 100-yard games on the ground.
The running game found its groove against Indiana State and Southern Illinois on the road. The melting pot of running backs in the backfield finally meshed as King Frazier, Chase Morlock, Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson found their roles.
After going half the season without game-breaking play, the Bison backfield finally flipped the switch.
TP: I think that’s fair. It really is. I think that next week after we had a fumble issue or two at South Dakota State, I talked to the group about redefining who we are and who I want us to be. From that point on, I think we just ran with a lot more passion.
It was interesting because, after the game, King came up to me and said thanks. He didn’t have to say anything more than that. I knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew I was right and pushing him to another level. That was really cool.
I think, more than anything else, that’s what I’m most proud of, is, whether the O-line or the running backs or whoever turned it up a notch, I mean shoot, Easton played really well. I think the whole unit stayed the course, didn’t crank it up, we stayed the course and we didn’t waiver and question. That’s probably the most important thing. We never said, “Oh gosh, Easton is not Carson, how are we going to do this?” More importantly, we just attacked the game plan and we went and did it, whatever way it shook out.
Stick finished the season with an 8-0 record and led an offense that averaged more than 37 points per game during that stretch – six points more than the first six games with Wentz at the helm.
This season was Polasek’s finest hour as a coach. He lost his starting quarterback, dealt with the occasional injury on the offensive line, at running back and wide receiver. But through it all, he lived up to the high expectations placed on the offense before the 2015 season.
TP: The players deserve most of the credit. You know, too, there’s a process of putting them in positions to be successful. I think the losses are a little more exaggerated by guys like yourself and need to be. We live in a community where it matters to people. If you don’t perform up to par, you deserve to be criticized. That’s why we get paid okay, but, sitting here now and in a week, we’ll be changing gears to 2017 recruiting and all that. Yeah, I think it is a rewarding year, I think that we can all walk up and down this hall knowing we all did a great job.
I just look at the job that Coach Hedberg did with the adversity he had. Number one, he had a kid ready to play and he should. Our staff on offense will always be judged how good our twos and threes are, and that’s how I approach it with my guys.
BI: What do you think you have learned this season about yourself and coaching?
TP: I think, it’s funny, someone, I can’t remember, it wasn’t on the record or anything, but if there’s another sport I’d coach, it would be high school basketball because you can really take the philosophy of just being playoff-tough and we need to be shooting the ball well late in the year, right, because everybody gets in (the playoffs).
To me, at NDSU, if you get a couple home games, and you’re in the playoffs, you have a shot. When you get people coming from the East Coast or the West Coast, or a different conference, I think our home crowd is worth five-six points itself, or two or three possessions itself.
I take away looking back when it’s fresh, it’s neat to do this interview when it’s fresh in your mind but Bison Nation showed up. If you look at every big game we won, they made an impact.
I take away that we can – we’re not defined only by a few great players in the program. We’re defined by the players who wears jersey number one, to the player that wears number 99B. Everybody matters and I think I really grew an appreciation for the support staff. Brian Gordon and those guys, the job Hank Jacobs is doing now. Everybody matters and if anybody gets complacent, we will not win a championship. And that’s hard to do. But the neat thing about North Dakota State, it seems that nobody wants to let down their brother, former player, a supporter, administrator, or simply put, each other.