Walker Deserves Place In Discussion With Jensen, Wentz On Bison All-Division I Team

Back when Craig Bohl was just Craig Bohl, long before he became a genius who won three straight national titles at North Dakota State before moving onto Wyoming, the football coach used to share stories with local media. That’s what happened one day in 2008 when I ran into Bohl in the lobby of the Fargodome and struck up a conversation, asking about the prospects for the upcoming season.

Eventually, the conversation turned to quarterback. He would have to replace Steve Walker, the graduated quarterback who led NDSU to 10-1 records in 2006 and 2007. Bohl sort of smirked when talking about Walker and shook his head when describing his thoughts about the QB.

Bohl described Walker “kind of having a belly, not throwing a very good ball, not having the strongest arm and not being a very good practice player.” Bohl even intimated that in Walker’s first couple of seasons, the coach was looking for somebody better who could start instead of Walker. It never happened. Walker kept winning, kept completing 65 percent of his passes and kept the job.

“He’s the definition of a gamer,” former NDSU offensive coordinator Pat Perles once told me.

Lesson: Don’t underestimate Steve Walker.

Although it seems Bison fans have done that to the great one from Lockport, Ill., again.

NDSU’s athletic department released its “All-Fargodome Team for Division I” this week, as voted on by fans, as a way to generate discussion about the Bison in July and honor some of their top players since the program moved up to NCAA Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) in 2004.

Not surprisingly the biggest point of discussion among the faithful, at least on social media, was the selection of Brock Jensen over Carson Wentz as the quarterback of this team. Even The Forum’s headline on a brief story read, “Former Bison QB Brock Jensen headlines NDSU’s ‘All-Fargodome Team.'” That was the “talker,” as we say in the talk-radio business. Jensen over Wentz.

It shouldn’t have been. Selecting Jensen as the top Bison QB in the Division I era was a no-brainer. He remains the ultimate winner in NDSU athletics history, leading the Bison to three straight national championships, the greatest drive in program history that came in a stunning win at Kansas State and piloting the program through the biggest boom era it will see. Jensen quarterbacked the best FCS team in history, the 15-0 2013 squad. Enough said. Think of this, too: Jensen played well enough to keep Wentz, the eventual No. 2 overall NFL draft choice, on the bench for two seasons.

The bigger head-scratcher was how Walker was not even part of the discussion as the best QB of the Division I era. If the criteria was winning games, performing in the clutch and compiling statistics — not physical skills or NFL draft choice placement — Walker ranks right up there with Jensen and Wentz. It seems he was forgotten in the discussion.

You could make an argument, in fact, that Walker was more deserving of being the “second place” finisher than Wentz. Don’t laugh. Yes, Wentz won two national championships as a starter. Walker never had a chance because the Bison were ineligible for the playoffs all four of his seasons. The Bison went 10-1 in both 2006 and 2007, Walker’s junior and senior seasons, and were considered one of the best FCS teams in the country both years.

Walker was the QB who started it all in Division I for NDSU. He was the quarterback who led the Bison to dramatic victories long before Jensen did — at Cal Davis and Cal Poly, and the doozy against Sam Houston State in 2007 at the Fargodome (Walker hit Kole Heckendorf on a 27-yard TD pass in the final seconds for a 31-28 win) that was considered the most thrilling Bison win at the dome before the Georgia Southern playoff game in 2012.

Walker was the QB who started NDSU’s roll against Football Championship Subdivision teams. He went 3-1 against the big boys, including the first one over Ball State. That came with a fourth-quarter rally in which Walker threw for a record 451 yards. He was also the quarterback in 2007 when NDSU made its first national splash with a win over Minnesota at the Metrodome. In that game, Walker went 20 of 25 for 191 yards and two TDs. That included the game-winner to Thor Brown early in the fourth quarter.

Walker was The Man long before Jensen and Wentz were The Men. He doesn’t deserve to be The Forgotten Man.

Here is a column I wrote on Walker in Nov. 2007, before his last game at the Fargodome, along with a list of Walker’s five greatest games:

Pressure formed Walker’s legacy

Picture

Steve Walker was introduced to North Dakota State football fans on Sept. 4, 2004. That’s when the redshirt freshman quarterback relieved struggling starter Tony Stauss midway through the fourth quarter of a game at Northern Colorado.

It appeared to be a lost cause, as those watching the game on television back in Fargo would attest. The Bison trailed 15-0 and the Bears’ defense was banzai rushing, knowing NDSU had to pass on every down.

We soon learned there is no such thing as a lost cause when Walker is involved. The youngster showed unusual poise under withering fire, leading the Bison on two touchdown drives in the final six minutes.

A missed two-point conversion was costly, and the Bison trailed 15-13 with 27 seconds remaining at the UNC 42. They were still not buried. Two Walker pass completions – he finished the game 10 for 10 – put NDSU in position to try a field goal as time drained away. It was not to be. Cory Vartanian’s 34-yard try was blocked.

NDSU lost the game.

It did, however, gain a legend.

Three years later, we’ve been educated enough to know that Walker’s heroics that day in Greeley, Colo., were not an exception but the norm. In a 33-start career during which you can count his iffy performances on one hand and have a couple of fingers to spare, Walker has become a shoo-in for the Bison Hall of Fame with miraculous comebacks, biggame victories, stunning efficiency and cool under pressure that would make Joe Montana jealous.

Today, Bison fans get to say thanks. NDSU hosts Illinois State at the Fargodome and Walker, now a senior, will play his final home game. We hope those clad in yellow and green realize to what they are bidding farewell. If it is too much to say Walker deserves the crown of greatest Bison quarterback over Chris Simdorn and Jeff Bentrim, there is no shame in at least starting the debate.

Yes, the young man’s been that good.

“His mind is just incredible,” says Bison offensive coordinator Pat Perles. “That’s what is so hard to measure or quantify about Steve. You can run wave drills, throwing drills, whatever. But his mind is what makes him such a special player.”

That is, in Perles’ belief, why Walker is so good under duress. The more frantic (two-minute drives), the more confusing (complicated defenses), the better Walker performs. It’s difficult to argue, given his history.

“The more freedom you give him, that’s where he’s at his best,” Perles said. “In the two-minute, things run as smoothly as they do anytime during the game. And when he’s calling audibles, he’s flawless.”

The statistics are there, too, if that’s what you need to see Walker’s excellence. He’ll go down as NDSU’s career leader in most passing categories. Two numbers that speak to his strengths are these: Walker’s 28-5 as a starter, including 18-1 the last two seasons, and he’s completed 63 percent of his passes.

But Walker’s success has never been about numbers. It’s always been the idea that he is in complete control, no matter the situation, no matter the opponent, no matter the score.

We should’ve seen it coming, given his debut against Northern Colorado.

“It’s not that we thought we had a superstar in the making,” Perles said. “What we were doing wasn’t working, so we put him in. Up to that point, he wasn’t a great practice player. He didn’t have a lot of freedom and we would just call a play and he’d run it. When he got into a game, he was a different player. He got into his element and thrived. He’s the definition of a gamer.”

Walker’s also the definition of a winner. Bison fans, the recipients of so much enjoyment because of those victories, should remember that today.

Walker’s top five moments

NDSU offensive coordinator Pat Perles offers what he considers to be Steve Walker’s five best games:

No. 5: at Minnesota – Oct. 21, 2006 and Oct. 20, 2007

Yes, that’s two games. The first was a 10-9 loss, the second a historic 27-21 victory. Perles said Walker was so good in both games that for the purposes of this list they are interchangeable. In this year’s game, for example, Walker was 20 of 25 for 191 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. In reviewing the game tape, Bison coaches found receivers dropped three passes and Walker threw away one ball to avoid a sack.

“That means he threw one inaccurate ball in 25 passes,” Perles said. “He was in a zone.”

No. 4: at Central Michigan – Sept. 22, 2007

In a 44-14 crushing of the Football Bowl Subdivision Chippewas, Walker was again on the mark – 25 of 30 with one TD pass and no interceptions. But Perles said Walker was even more accurate reading CMU’s defense and calling the proper audibles.

“They were in a number of different defenses and he changed into a number of different plays that ended up (being successful),” Perles said. “They ran some variations where he had to have just the right read and make just the right change and he did it every time.”

No. 3: at Ball State – Sept. 23, 2006

NDSU beat an FBS team for the first time, 29-24, and Walker was remarkable. He was 29 of 46 for 451 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. Included in his three TD tosses was the game-winner to Travis White with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter, a 39-yard screen that was exactly the right call against the defense Ball State ran on the play.

“Four of his top six games came against I-A teams. What does that say?” Perles said.

No. 2: Sam Houston State – Sept. 15, 2007

Fans left the Fargodome awed by Bearkats QB Rhett Bomar, but Walker’s team won a 41-38 thriller, with Walker leading the Bison on a gamewinning three-play, 54-yard drive in the final 26 seconds. Walker’s perfectly thrown 27-yard TD pass to Kole Heckendorf with 7 seconds left was the winner. The numbers: 18 of 26, 295 yards, five TDs, no interceptions.

“We charted his accuracy, like we do after every game, and found that 25 of his 26 passes were accurate. That’s unheard of. That’s big-time,” Perles said.

No. 1: at California Davis – Nov. 4, 2006

Was there any question? The greatest comeback in Bison history – NDSU stormed from a 24-0 halftime deficit to win 28-24 on a last-second TD pass – was fueled by Walker. The short winning throw to John Majeski was almost simple, compared to two fourth-down completions Walker made to keep alive the winning drive. In the first, running left and backward with defenders bearing down, Walker threw a bullet to a wellcovered Kole Heckendorf for 14 yards on fourth and 12. The second completion went to Majeski, who was so covered by two defensive backs that he was all but invisible to Walker. It went for 22 yards on fourth and 10.

Of the completion to Heckendorf, Perles said, “It was as good a throw as I’ve ever seen.”