YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — North Dakota State freshman Kobe Johnson didn't play last week at South Dakota State because he didn't fit into the game plan, Matt Entz said earlier this week. Youngstown State probably wishes the Bison head coach had the same philosophy this week.
Johnson returned a kickoff 94 yards late in the first half for a touchdown that was a signature play in NDSU's 56-17 win over the Penguins Saturday night at Stambaugh Stadium. Johnson also added a 75-yard touchdown run and finished with 103 yards rushing on just six carries.
"I feel like I had to come out here and play my hardest," Johnson said. "Not playing last week was kind of tough on me, but it was for a reason. The team still got the win so you always have to be happy and excited about that. My mindset coming out this weekend was, prove myself."
His kickoff return came right after Youngstown got on the board on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Joe Craycraft to Miles Joiner. Johnson's score made it a 42-7 halftime lead. It tied him for the sixth-longest return in team history and was the first kickoff return for a touchdown since Bruce Anderson returned one 97 yards against Northern Iowa in the 2015 FCS quarterfinals.
Johnson said the plan was to take it up the hashmark before the play started to develop.
"As soon as I caught the kickoff, I saw the hole," he said. "I trusted (his teammates) 100 percent they were going to move them off the hash. I trusted my speed and just kept rolling."
Mays suffers serious leg injury
Youngstown State senior starting quarterback Nathan Mays left the field with a serious leg injury in the first quarter after scrambled and took a hit. He gained three yards before starting his slide and then was hit by NDSU's Aaron Mercadel and Cole Karcz. Youngstown head coach Bo Pelini said Mays suffered a broken leg just above the right ankle and a dislocated ankle.
Mays was a stalwart for the Penguins since his redshirt freshman season in 2016. He started on and off since his sophomore year, battling injuries each season.
His best game came against the Bison in 2017 at Stambaugh Stadium, a contest won 27-24 in overtime by NDSU. Mays rushed for 81 yards on 21 carries while completing 11 of 15 passes for 188 yards and two scores.
"It makes you sick, my thoughts go out to him, he's an unbelievable competitor," said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. "A young man we've had to deal with for the last few years."
Said Bison linebacker Jabril Cox: "It was very unfortunate, our prayers to him. It was just a simple play that turned tragic."
Mays was carted off the field, but came back on the YSU sideline later in the game with a cast on his leg.
"It's too bad. He can deal with the pain," Pelini said. "He's pretty sad because his career is over. I feel for him. He's a great competitor. No one wants to end their career like that. That's a tough one to swallow."
Noland sees extended time
The Bison coaching staff hoped to get backup quarterback Zeb Noland extended playing earlier in the season, but the opportunity didn't present itself.
It did against Youngstown State.
With the Bison leading 49-10 in the third quarter, Noland replaced starter Trey Lance. On his first pass, Noland zipped a strike to tight end Josh Babicz for a 29-yard gain. It was the Iowa State transfer's longest completion as a Bison.
Noland played about one quarter before giving way to third-stringer Noah Sanders with 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter. He was 2 of 2 for 36 yards.
Fullback Garrett Malstrom, safety James Kaczor and cornerback Dom Davis did not suit up for the Bison. ... NDSU was favored by 17 points by the offshore betting site 5dimes.com ... Attending the game in the pressbox was Dick Creed, a former longtime NFL official from the Youngstown area. He officiated 22 years on the field and 15 years in the replay booth. Creed worked three Super Bowls on the field, including Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis between the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins. Creed was on the field when Washington quarterback Joe Theismann famously broke his leg against the New York Giants in 1985. ... A gusty wind at Stambaugh Stadium during pregame warmups for both teams calmed as the game wore on and was not a factor. ... Youngstown had one of the wildest two-game swings of anybody in the country. The 56-17 loss to the Bison came one week after the Penguins crushed Western Illinois 59-14.