FARGO — North Dakota State came into its game with Western Illinois ranked No. 1 in Division I FCS football. The Leathernecks came in with one win.
The difference in the ones was evident from the opening kickoff and the explosive Bison went on to take a 57-21 victory before 17,141 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. NDSU improved to 10-0 overall and 6-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which means the Bison are one victory away from clinching a share of their ninth straight league title.
It was also the 31st straight win for the program and moves the Bison two away from tying their own FCS record of 33 in a row.
If Bison quarterback Trey Lance wasn’t in the conversation for the Walter Payton Award that goes to the best player in the FCS, he helped the talk in the first half alone on Saturday. The freshman was 14 of 18 for 241 yards in two quarters, a performance that staked the Bison to a 27-0 halftime lead.
He finished 17 of 22 for 313 yards and two touchdowns, bringing his season total to 21 TD passes against no interceptions. The 313 yards tied Brock Jensen for eighth-most in a single game by a Bison quarterback.
"He's in this room more than anybody else," said Bison head coach Matt Entz, while sitting in NDSU's team room where players watch film. "He sits in here every morning from 8 to 10 o'clock. He's in here and he knows exactly what every offense is going to do. To see him continually develop and continually challenge himself; he's doing a great job of taking what offenses give him and making plays with his feet when he needs to."
The scoring began early and it got started with a defensive play. Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey picked off a Connor Sampson pass on the first possession of the game.
NDSU only had to go 50 yards, getting a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Adam Cofield and it was 7-0.
A 41-yard pass to receiver Christian Watson set up the Bison the next time they had the ball. Running back Dimitri Williams scored from the 10-yard line for a 13-0 lead.
NDSU threw a patented drive at the Leathernecks one possession later going 80 yards in 13 plays. Lance scored on a 23-yard scramble and the Bison led 20-0. It appeared that was going to be the halftime score, but NDSU tight end Josh Babicz grabbed a pass over the middle and took it the distance for an 88-yard scoring play and a 27-0 lead with 1:41 remaining in the half.
NDSU almost added more after cornerback Josh Hayes picked off another Sampson pass and returned it to the WIU 23-yard line.
A holding penalty negated a touchdown pass to Watson, however, and Lance’s arm was hit by a Leathernecks defensive lineman on fourth down while attempting a pass.
Western came in 111th in the FCS in turnover margin and the problem arose again with the two interceptions and a lost two fumbles. The Leathernecks also came in 113th in time of possession, which surfaced again against the Bison. NDSU had the ball for almost 39 minutes of the 60-minute game.
"As long as we keep their offense off the field," said Bison defensive end Derrek Tuszka. "We had 600-and-some yards of total offense, we want our offense out there."
NDSU finished with 688 total yards. Running back Jalen Bussey came off the bench and ran for 123 yards on six carries and two touchdowns. Lance completed passes to nine different players with Watson, Jimmy Kepouros and Hunter Luepke having four receptions each.
Lance and Watson struck again early in the third quarter. On second-and-9, Watson took a simple out pass from Lance, faked a defensive back and turned on the jets. It was a 51-yard scoring play before it was over and the Bison led 33-0.
Watson continued his game-breaking play this season with four receptions for 121 yards.
"I think he can be pretty special," Entz said. "I've been in the league for almost 10 years and without trying to boost his ego any, I think he can be as good of a receiver as I've seen in the Missouri Valley. He's only a second-year player, he has to continue to read coverages, getting off press, there are number of fundamental things that he can continue (to improve)."
If there was a dent in the Bison armor, it was the special teams and 12 penalties for 123 yards. A high snap negated a two-point conversion try. A field goal late in the first half went awry when holder Garret Wegner mishandled the snap.
And kicker Griffin Crosa missed an extra point in the third quarter.
None of it mattered, however, with the Bison offense in command. The output included a 65-yard touchdown run by Bussey early in the fourth quarter, the first career rushing attempt by the true freshman from Brandon, Fla.
He wasn’t done, either, scoring from 45 yards out the next time he touched the ball, giving him 110 yards on his first two carries.
NDSU sat several starters in the second half. Entz said he wasn't aware of any significant injuries.
"I feel good at where we're at right now," Entz said.