FARGO — North Dakota State was down two starting linebackers Saturday against the University South Dakota. Strong side linebacker Jabril Cox and weak side linebacker Aaron Mercadel were not in uniform for the Bison's 49-14 victory over the Coyotes in Missouri Valley Football Conference play at the Fargodome.
Cox, a junior, left last week's game against Western Illinois and sat out against the Coyotes in what Bison head coach Matt Entz said was "a swollen knee." Entz said Cox could have played against USD if the game was more in the line of a "one-and-done" playoff scenario.
"Have to make sure he's good," Entz said. "I think he'll be ready next week."
Cox is NDSU's third-leading tackler with 56 stops. He has six tackles for lost yardage and three quarterback sacks despite the penchant of teams to run away from his side of the field.
Mercadel, a senior, had an injured hamstring. He's started seven games for the Bison racking up 31 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Like Cox, Entz said Mercadel maybe could have played against USD if it were under different circumstances.
"You don't want to bring anybody back to too fast," Entz said. "All of a sudden they get injured even more and they're out even longer. We'll continue to take it day-by-day."
To fill the absence of Cox and Mercadel, NDSU turned to a pair of safeties for help in starting strong safety Michael Tutsie and backup safety James Kaczor while Dawson Weber started at Tutsie's safety spot. There wasn't much of a dropff. Kaczor led the Bison in tackles with nine along with middle linebacker Jackson Hankey. Tutsie had six stops.
"More important is to have the buy-in from those guys," Entz said. "All of a sudden you're thrown into a position you don't play very often, get coached by a different position coach and have the pressure that the game plan is on you guys. You saw those guys step up and do a great job."
Luepke makes presence known
A couple of freshmen made noticeable contributions against the Coyotes. True freshman wide receiver Braylon Henderson saw action on the Bison's first drive and had his first career reception in the second quarter. It was the second game in which Henderson appeared. He also saw action against Missouri State.
Hunter Luepke, a 6-1, 249-pound redshirt freshman fullback, got into the end zone for the first time with a 7-yard run to open the third quarter. Luepke finished with 28 yards on two carries and caught a pass for 3 yards for another touchdown.
Luepke was a tailback in high school in Spencer, Wis., and came to NDSU with 82 career touchdowns.
"Hunter Luepke, it's been a waiting game to see this kid go," Entz said. "It's not like he's not used to carrying the football. He's a pretty special product from smalltown Wisconsin. A blue collar kid."
Redshirt freshman DJ Stewart had his first career carries. Entz said Stewart was moved from wide receiver to running back earlier this season.
"I thought he could be more productive, more comfortable at the running back position," Entz said.
Etc. etc. etc.
Bison defensive tackle Cole Karcz and running back Dimitri Williams also didn't play because of injuries. Both were in uniform for Senior Day festivities. ... True freshman running back Jalen Bussey, who made a splash a week ago with two long touchdown runs, had a cast on his hand Saturday after breaking a finger in practice. ... Backup quarterback Zeb Noland threw his first touchdown pass as a Bison with the 3-yard toss to Luepke. ... The 49 points was one shy of hitting at least 50 points in three straight games for the first time in school history. NDSU came into the USD game after beating Youngstown State 56-17 and Western Illinois 57-21.