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The Choice: Lance’s flawless freshman season built his NDSU legend originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Programming note: Listen to "The Choice: Trey Lance" on 49ers Talk every Thursday for show segments leading up to the full TV premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 7, on NBC Sports Bay Area. In Part 2, the story behind Lance's flawless freshman season at North Dakota State is told.
The greatest achievement of Trey Lance’s only college season as a starter became a taboo subject for the people closest to him.
Even those on the periphery were unsure exactly how to handle the situation -- although their vocations called for them to continue to talk and write about it as long as the streak endured.
And nearly two years later, they’re still talking and writing about it.
PART 1 OF "THE CHOICE": 49ers' Lance interest was secret worth keeping
“I remember as the offense would come out, you’d say, ‘Here comes Trey Lance, the redshirt freshman from Marshall, Minnesota, 18 touchdowns, no interceptions,’ ” said Jeff Culhane, the radio voice of the North Dakota State Bison.
“We talked about it all the time on the air because how can you not?” TV play-by-play man Brian Shawn said. “We kept waiting. Is he ever? And the thing is, he never really had a lot of balls that were in danger of getting intercepted.”
Added Culhane: “Every week, it was like, ‘Knock on wood, here's the broadcaster's no-hitter jinx.’ How often do you talk about it, right?”
The number zero came to define Lance’s historic 2019.
The Bison rolled through the season and became the first modern-era Division I program to finish with a 16-0 record, as they won a third consecutive national title in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
Lance pitched nothing but perfect games. He threw for 28 touchdowns, rushed for 14 more and did not toss an interception. He became the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player at his level of college football.
Courtesy of the Lance family
Angie Lance hugs her son, Trey, after a North Dakota State Bison game
Mom knows best
Angie Lance loved all the chatter about her son’s interception-less streak as much as anyone. It was at the front of her mind as the season progressed, and all but one of the numbers on his stat sheet were piling up — superstitions be damned!
“I thought it was so cool that he hadn't thrown an interception,” Angie said. “I was like, ‘Wow, he hasn't thrown an interception.’ ‘Don't talk about it.’ I wasn't allowed to talk about it, and then it was like, ‘Well, another game without an interception.’ I thought it was so fun, and then they were like, ‘Stop talking about it; you don't talk about it.’
“Trey would not even acknowledge it. Every time I said something like, ‘Trey, you didn't have an interception in this game,’ he would say, ‘Oh my gosh, mom, stop talking about it.’ So, I wasn't superstitious. I just thought it was really cool. But he didn't want to talk about it.”
No losses. No interceptions. No jinx.
There’s no question about Lance’s legacy at NDSU and at the FCS level, period.
“It's the greatest season by any FCS player in the history of FCS,” NDSU beat writer Jeff Kolpack said. “There's no way anybody in the FCS will ever equal that, and he did it when he was a freshman. He's a freshman, and he had the best season any FCS player will ever have. Think about that.”
All from a player whom none of the bigger schools viewed as a quarterback.
Just 150 miles to the east of Lance's hometown of Marshall is the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, a middling Big Ten Conference program, haven't produced an NFL draft pick at quarterback since 1972.
Minnesota wasn't interested in keeping one of the state's top prospects at his desired position. And that's how Trey Lance ended up making history at North Dakota State.
“The fact that we wanted him as a quarterback from the get-go helped us,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “That's what we saw him as. That's what our vision was. We never really got off that thought or off that messaging to him and his family.
“I think other schools were ‘maybe quarterback,’ ‘maybe defensive player,’ tight end, safety, linebacker ... And I think that just wasn't what he wanted.”
Lance was passed over through most of the recruiting process. Although he received an invitation to a regional Elite 11 camp in Chicago, he barely got a second look upon showing up that day.
Courtesy of NDSU Athletics
Phoenix Sproles (left) and Trey Lance pose with the NCAA FCS national championship trophy
Perfect fit at QB U
Once Lance made a verbal commitment to NDSU, he became invested in his future school's fate. An 11th-hour pitch from Boise State, though flattering, wasn't given serious consideration.
“I’d already fallen in love with North Dakota State and the coaching staff,” Lance said. “By that time, I probably had 25 guys in my class that I kind of helped to recruit out of that class of 2018 at North Dakota State.
“So, for me, it was a no-brainer. I wasn’t going to bail on those guys, regardless of what school came at that time.”
Lance signed on under former NDSU coach Chris Klieman to become the next in the line at QB U. He'd be working closely with a well-regarded quarterbacks coach, Randy Hedberg, and a bright first-year offensive coordinator, Tyler Roehl.
Carson Wentz was the Bison starting quarterback for two of the five national championships they won during his time in Fargo. He was the No. 2 overall pick, by the Philadelphia Eagles, in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Easton Stick spent one season as Wentz’s understudy, then was a three-year starter and led NDSU to two consecutive national titles. The Los Angeles Chargers selected him in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
With that lineage, Carlton Lance knew his son would have a platform to take his game to the highest level. After all, NDSU’s recent track record of producing NFL quarterbacks is as good as what even the best of the Big Ten has to offer.
“Quarterbacks come from everywhere, so it's what you do when you get there,” Carlton said. “They're preparing you, and you're going to be in a good spot if you do what you need to do.”
In football-crazy Fargo, there was pressure on Lance to keep things rolling when he stepped into the lineup in 2019 after redshirting for one season behind Stick.
In two appearances during his true freshman year, Lance showed what he could do with his legs. He tore off TD runs of 44 yards against North Alabama and 23 yards at South Dakota -- the latter after dropping the snap and improvising with a dash up the middle.
Lance still faced a challenge from Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland, who threw for 360 yards and two TDs the previous season against Oklahoma. A little more than a week before the 2019 season opener, though, Entz named Lance the starter.
His first start set the tone for the season.
Everyone already knew Lance could run. In the first quarter of his first start, he showcased his arm strength, touch and accuracy, too.
Fittingly, he teamed up with Phoenix Sproles, a wide receiver from Minneapolis whom he helped recruit to Fargo. Upon his commitment to NDSU, Lance texted Sproles, “Let’s do something special.”
Said Sproles: “So I committed a week or two after he did, and then it's been history from there.”
Courtesy of Tyler Roehl
NDSU offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl, with his son, grabs a candid photo with Trey Lance in the Bison locker room
Lance’s last laugh
NDSU's season opener was played against Butler University in front of 34,544 fans at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis — just three miles from the University of Minnesota’s football stadium.
Lance displayed the quarterback skills the Golden Gophers, and a lot of bigger schools, were unable or unwilling to project when they watched him play in high school.
In his debut as the starter, Lance showed the dual-threat skills that would become so attractive 20 months later to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch as they prepared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Lance had a 33-yard touchdown run on the first series of the game. Several minutes later, he dropped a high-arching 47-yard pass perfectly into Sproles' arms for a score.
“It was just the first quarter, so we were just getting started,” Sproles said. “I think that's when people woke up. They were just like, ‘Wow’ — like we have a baller.
“We have the next QB.”
Coming next Thursday: Part 3 -- How Lance's parents and a third-grade teacher influenced him in his early years