The 2021 FCS spring football season has turned this CFB Game Traveler’s FCS stadium “wish list” into a reality.
While there are only three FBS dome stadiums (Syracuse, UTSA and UNLV), FCS features several. In fact, the Missouri Valley Conference alone has four.
On the first full week of the spring season, three of those hosted games on consecutive days: Northern Iowa on Feb. 19, North Dakota on Feb. 20 and North Dakota State on Feb. 21. Talk about a dream come true!
Hello, Cedar Falls!
First up was a visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa to see the No. 3 Panthers open on a Friday night against fifth-ranked South Dakota State. The UNI-Dome opened in 1976 and seats 16,324 fans.
It has the second-largest video board in FCS (100 feet by 27 feet), recently installed artificial turf (2017) and an extremely unique roof design. Check it out:
What also jumps out at you is how close the crowd is to the field. There is virtually no space outside of the actual field dimensions, creating a sense of the fans being right on top of the action.
Of course, we are in times of reduced capacity due to COVID-19, but even the small crowd voiced their presence. They were also grateful to be in attendance and were rewarded with an incredible game.
Northern Iowa led late in the fourth quarter, but the Jackrabbits pulled it out in the end, 24-20. South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski connected with running back Pierre Strong for the go ahead touchdown with just 19 seconds remaining. It was a classic battle between two top-5 teams and a great way to start the weekend.
From Northern Iowa to North Dakota
After an 8-hour drive through the night, I made it to Grand Forks, North Dakota in time for a noon kickoff between No. 13 Southern Illinois and North Dakota. North Dakota plays in the Alerus Center and all can say is wow! I was not expecting to be so mesmerized by a 20-year-old facility (built in 2001), but I was blown away by how beautiful this venue is:
It feels brand new to be honest. It’s comfortable like a movie theater, yet has a great vibe when the crowd got into the action. It’s a stark contrast to its prior home, Memorial Stadium where North Dakota played in from 1927 to 2000.
Obviously, a domed stadium is necessary with the often-frigid temperatures, but the Fighting Hawks didn’t just build a dome…they built a palace.
The game ended up being the FCS upset of the week as well. It was close at halftime, with the Fighting Hawks clinging to a 16-14 lead.
The second half however was all North Dakota. It scored four straight touchdowns and extended its advantage to 44-14 late in the fourth. The Salukis tacked on a touchdown before time expired, making the final score 44-21.
I highly recommend you add the Alerus Center to your list of FCS venues to catch a game. The overall experience made such a significant impact that I’m now considering altering my travel schedule to make a repeat visit on March 4. I’m hoping I can make it happen…fingers crossed!
Down the Road
If back-to-back nights at the UNI-Dome and Alerus Center was not enough, I got to top of the weekend with the ultimate FCS bucket list stop in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s was only a short drive south from Grand Forks — a little over an hour – to catch the 3-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State Bison.
North Dakota State, of course, plays in the Fargodome, which is considered the most iconic stadium in all of FCS. It opened in 1993, holds 19,000 fans and has been the ultimate home-field advantage.
The Bison have an overall record of 153-24 and a 24-1 playoff record in the dome. In 2015, the crowd recorded a noise decibel level of 120, which is just below the highest ever recorded for an indoor facility (126 decibels at a Sacramento Kings’ home game is the highest). The nickname “Thunderdome” was definitely earned and the dome is quite a sight:
For their home opener vs. Youngstown State, the top-ranked Bison were allowed to have a 50% capacity for the game. This is the highest percentage I can think of since the pandemic started and it was great to see. Everyone was wearing masks obviously, but it really made it seem closer to a true representation of “peak” Fargodome.
North Dakota State fans are very in tune with how they impact the game as well — following the ebbs and flow on the field and knowing when to kick things up a notch on a key defensive third down.
As for the game, North Dakota State was not dominant but it was never seriously threatened by the Penguins. The Bison led 11-0 at the half and after two second half touchdown runs by freshman Jalen Bussey, the final score ended up being 25-7.
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North Dakota State ran its winning streak to 39 games and the home fans no doubt expect nothing less than yet another FCS championship game appearance on May 16 in Frisco, Texas.
While Week 0 between McNeese and Tarleton State was an appetizer, this first full weekend of FCS spring football was a heaping helping of a main course. As someone who has primarily traveled for FBS football, this unique opportunity in the spring is really amazing.
With 130 FBS programs and only 15 or so Saturdays each fall, it has been tough to fit in FCS regular season games. FCS is now the only game in town and watching this season unfold is igniting a passion within me to not only continue to travel to games this spring, but also to make FCS games a priority in the fall.
As I said in the beginning of this article, it’s a dream come true to see games at these venues for the first time. Week 2 brings another trifecta of games — this time in the South.
I’ll be at Alabama State on Friday for its opener vs. Southern. On Saturday, I’ll jump across state lines to Georgia for Mercer vs. The Citadel. I’ll be back in Alabama for a Sunday game between Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech.