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Teddy Corwin was trying to stuff some belongings into a small duffel bag. He pushed and stuffed and zipped until finally, a teammate had to come to his aid. Together, they got it all in.

It was that kind of scene Saturday in Illinois State’s locker room. There was no nice, tidy fit. Nothing about it was easy.

The Redbirds’ first Football Championship Subdivision national championship game said everything about their heart and grit and will. In the end — a bitter, numbing end — none of it was enough.

An ISU touchdown with 1:38 left gave the Redbirds a 27-23 lead. A North Dakota State score with 37 seconds to go gave the Bison their fourth straight title, 29-27.

You call that easy?

"I thought we had that,” said Corwin, ISU’s bearded, 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive lineman. “We let it slip away. It's a team effort. You can't blame it on anyone. But it's hard ... yeah."

Rallying from a 20-7 third-quarter deficit and a 23-14 fourth-quarter hole provided terrific drama. Maybe you’ll find a better championship game somewhere. Don’t count on it.

Like everyone in the cramped Redbird locker room, Corwin was a mix of disappointment and resolve, heartache and hope.

Eye black was still smeared across his face. It did nothing to alter his vision.

“I plan on being back here a year from today,” the junior said. “We definitely plan on being back next year. We're going to work twice as hard this offseason.

“It was a great game. It was one of the funnest games I've ever played in. Unfortunately, we couldn't come out on top this time."

It was a rarity in this season of dramatic finishes and stirring rallies. Twice ISU won on last-second Nick Aussieker field goals. In the national semifinals, the Redbirds came back from a 15-6 halftime deficit to win at No. 1-ranked New Hampshire.

It was exhilarating stuff. And now this, a debilitating end.

“The entire season and all of this work came down to one series,” junior linebacker Pat Meehan said. “We just didn't make the plays that we needed to.

“I don't think there was one point in the game that we were nervous or anything like that. We knew what kind of team we had. But one play can change the entire outcome.”

The biggest was a 33-yard pass on third-and-10 from Carson Wentz to RJ Urzendowski, setting up North Dakota State at the ISU 5.

“A play we have to make,” ISU senior defensive back Tevin Allen said.

Wentz ran for the winning TD on the next snap. Moments later, on the elevator ride from the press box, a North Dakota State fan said, “The Drive for Five.” Already, the Bison and their passionate faithful were talking about a fifth straight title.

ISU was wrestling with the one that got away.

The Redbirds lost. Were they losers? It seemed a harsh word given the pulsating fourth quarter, the fight on both sides. All-American running back Marshaun Coprich used it anyway.

"Who gets the trophy at the end? They did,” Coprich said. “We were the loser today. Hopefully, we'll be back next year."

That, of course, is not guaranteed. Even with Coprich, star quarterback Tre Roberson, Corwin, Meehan and others to return, getting here will be difficult.

It always is, though North Dakota State fans have come to expect it, plan on it, budget for it.

“They have incredible pedigree,” Meehan said of the Bison. “They're the best team in the nation.”

Not by much, mind you. There was no solace in that for Meehan, who said, “The hardest thing right now is seeing the look on the seniors’ faces.”

One of them, All-American long snapper Chris Highland of Normal, predicted ISU will be back in Frisco “sooner or later for sure.” He will not be.

Nothing about that is easy.

“I have two sisters at home, but I have a lot of brothers in that locker room that mean a lot to me,” Highland said. “Right now we're all hurting.

“But when we have our five-, 10-, 15-year reunion, we’ll be able to look back at the time we had and smile and laugh and say, ‘You know what, we had a hell of a time.’ ”

We all did.

Randy Kindred is at rkindred@pantagraph.com. The Kindred Blog: www.pantagraph.com/blogs

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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