Western Illinois was somewhat hanging in there in the first half Saturday afternoon at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. North Dakota State was in command, but the Bison were committing a few penalties and generally playing some average minutes.
At that point, the best play was a 30-yard throw of the penalty flag by the back judge, who called holding on the Bison offensive line. The ref must have been a former quarterback or baseball pitcher who could gas it 90 mph; it was that impressive.
Two plays later, the most impressive play of the day was turned in by Bison tight end Josh Babicz. The 6-foot-6, 253-pound sophomore took a simple pass over the middle by quarterback Trey Lance.
“He looked the other way to get the safety’s eyes and threw me a perfect ball,” Babicz said of Lance. “I just had to outrun the defenders.”
Simple enough. But Babicz took simple to shock and awe. He sidestepped one Leathernecks tackler and put on the jets. The big guy can run, which he did for 88 yards and a touchdown. There hasn’t been a tight end play like that in the big brick building since the University of North Dakota’s Jim Kleinsasser went 77 yards against the Bison in 1998.
Kleinsasser had the jets and strength that parlayed him into a long NFL career. This is not to suggest Babicz is NFL-bound, but the Bison know a good tight end when they see one.
“The big man has some speed,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz.
It’s something that wasn’t news to Entz, who as the defensive coordinator saw a true freshman Babicz play wide receiver on the scout team two years ago. Babicz’s role was to play the other team’s best receiver, “Because we knew he could run and he has a big catch radius,” Entz said. “Today, everyone saw what we all knew, this man is pretty special. That room has a lot of special players.”
It was the second-longest scoring play in NDSU history, which wasn’t the only Bison record of sorts set on Saturday. True freshmen defensive linemen Will Mostaert and Eli Mostaert became the first twins to cause a fumble and recover it on the same play in the Division I era.
It was that kind of day in NDSU’s 57-21 win over the Leathernecks. And the Mostaerts weren’t the only true freshmen to introduce themselves to Gate City Bank Field.
Ladies and gentlemen, “The Bus” was in the house.
True freshman running back Jalen Bussey’s first two carries will be legendary some day. He went 65 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Later, after returning a kickoff 50 yards and almost taking that the distance, he scored on the next play — a 45-yard run.
“We were going crazy,” said Bison receiver Christian Watson. “We’re always happy when our young guys get to go out there and get the ball. Bussey really took advantage of his opportunities today.”
True that. Two carries, 110 yards. Add the kickoff return and it was 160 yards on his first three touches.
“It’s something you dream about as a kid, being able to play college football,” said Bussey, from Brandon, Fla. “It’s very rare and a blessing to be able to do that.”
Bussey is 5-foot-5 and 153 pounds. For the record, he does not carry the nickname “The Bus.”
“I’m not sure, that’s a pretty big name to follow after Jerome Bettis and everything,” Bussey said. “Everybody calls me Bussey, Jalen Bussey.”
Bettis was the 255-pound running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. OK, how about Bus Jr.? The Mini Bus? You won’t see him in more than four games this season because Entz made it clear he doesn’t want to go past the NCAA four-game eligibility rule.
However, it wasn’t all great with NDSU. The penalty bug resurfaced with 12 infractions for 123 yards.
"We have to move our feet, seems like a fundamental thing right now," Entz said.
One of them included an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on NDSU’s Cody Mauch that had nothing to do with behavior. He started the game wearing jersey No. 88. He was wearing No. 70 late in the third quarter when he got caught.
There hasn’t been a jersey controversy like that in the dome since somebody stole Brock Jensen’s No. 16 before a playoff game in 2013.
Then again, NDSU was leading 40-7 when Mauch was flagged.
The Bison are finding their offensive groove. They scored more than 50 points for the second consecutive game, the first time NDSU has done it in league play since beating South Dakota State 55-30 and Northern Colorado 62-14.
That was in 1984.
Lance was 17 of 22 for 313 yards, which tied him with Jensen for the eighth-best single game performance in Bison history. Watson is turning into the dynamic player the coaches were hoping for. Ty Brooks averaged 7.4 yards a carry.
Babicz has wheels, the the Mini-Bus has even faster wheels.
“When you rack up almost 700 yards of offense, you feel pretty good about it,” Entz said. “We have plenty of things to work on, I totally agree with that and we’ll work on that on Monday.”