NORMAL, Ill. — North Dakota State is driving toward another historic NCAA Division I FCS winning streak. And the Bison aren't doing it against cupcakes.
The No. 1-ranked Bison used myriad big plays to dominate 10th-ranked Illinois State on Saturday, scoring a 37-3 victory before 13,391 fans at sold-out Hancock Stadium to open Missouri Valley Football Conference play.
NDSU has won 26 consecutive games, tying James Madison (2016-17) for the second-longest winning streak in FCS history. The Bison also own the longest streak with 33 consecutive wins from 2012-14.
"It's just the culture that we have," said Bison senior defensive end Derrek Tuszka, who had two sacks against the Redbirds. "We don't get hung up on past wins and losses. We learn from them and move forward."
During its current winning streak, NDSU (5-0, 1-0 MVFC) has defeated 14 ranked opponents. That includes three this year: Illinois State, then-No. 18 Delaware and then-No. 4 UC Davis.
The Bison had too many offensive weapons, while their stifling defense held the Redbirds without a touchdown. NDSU finished with 482 yards, limiting Illinois State to 200.
"They outplayed us and outcoached us in every phase of the game," Illinois State head coach Brock Spack said. "They were just better than us all day."
Bison wide receiver Christian Watson delivered a haymaker in the third quarter, catching a screen pass from quarterback Trey Lance and weaving through defenders into the end zone for a 42-yard score that gave the Bison a 30-3 lead with 2 minutes, 43 seconds to play in the third quarter.
That was the first career TD reception for Watson, who finished with three catches for 57 yards.
"Those are the plays I'm supposed to be making," Watson said.
Lance added a 7-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Ben Ellefson that gave the Bison a 37-3 lead with 7:32 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Bison finished the game with three touchdown plays of 35 yards or longer. They also added a 79-yard kickoff return that set up a field goal. Lance completed 12 of 15 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
"We have a bunch of explosive players," Watson said. "We have a bunch of guys who will turn nothing into something."
The only offensive weapon the Redbirds had going for them early in the game was senior running back James Robinson, who at one point midway in the second quarter accounted for all 82 of ISU's total yards. Illinois State found little help elsewhere.
With his two top receivers injured and not playing, Redbirds quarterback Brady Davis struggled in the passing game, completing 6 of 14 passes through two quarters. NDSU got to him numerous times with four quarterback sacks and several other plays that had Davis running out of the pocket, as the Bison built a three-score edge by halftime.
The NDSU offense, meanwhile, had a solid first half in taking a 23-3 lead. It started early in the first quarter, when Lance found a wide open Noah Gindorff and the sophomore tight end scored on a 35-yard play.
"You want to win the explosive play battle," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "It's demoralizing. It takes the momentum away from your opponent."
After the Bison defense held ISU on three plays, running back Ty Brooks added another big play. The senior scooted through the left side of the line for a 53-yard touchdown and it was 13-0 less than seven minutes into the game.
ISU responded with its best drive, reaching the Bison 8-yard line, but the Bison defense stiffened forcing a 25-yard field goal from Sam Fenlason.
NDSU countered with the next 10 points, including a 38-yard Griffin Crosa field goal and a 4-yard touchdown run from Adam Cofield. That gave the Bison a 20-point lead heading into halftime.
"My message with this group is we need to continue to get better," Entz said. "We still have a lot to learn."
The Bison rushed for 293 yards on 55 attempts, averaging 5.3 yards per rush. NDSU limited the Redbirds to 79 rushing yards on 31 carries. Spack thought his run defense, particularly the ISU defensive line and linebackers, would be stouter against the Bison.
"I think the game was won and lost on the front seven, both sides of the ball," Spack said. "If you ask me one surprising part of the game, that's the most surprising."