FARGO — Central Arkansas gave North Dakota State all it could handle on Saturday afternoon. In front of families of players because of COVID-19, the Bison outlasted the Bears down the stretch thanks to bruising fullback Hunter Luepke.
Luepke caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trey Lance, with less than eight minutes remaining in the game, to give the Bison the lead for good in a 39-28 Division I FCS victory.
“I think sometimes to call him a fullback is almost a little bit of a disservice," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "He does do a lot of blocking, but this is a 250-pound athlete that can move really well.”
The Bison are scheduled to play one game this fall due to the pandemic. They extended their Football Championship Subdivision record winning streak to 38 consecutive games.
Luepke added a 13-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 51 seconds remaining for the final margin. The 6-foot-1, 244-pound power back from Spencer, Wis., rushed for 27 yards and a touchdown on two attempts. He also caught two passes for 29 yards and a score.
“I’m just worried about run blocking and doing whatever I need to do once my number is called," said Luepke, who scored 95 touchdowns during his high school career.
The Bison owned the last half of the fourth quarter in holding off the game Bears. Central Arkansas took a 20-18 lead into the fourth quarter, the first time the Bison faced a deficit heading into the final 15 minutes since Oct. 6, 2018, at Northern Iowa.
“We’re not looking for moral victories," Central Arkansas head coach Nathan Brown said. "We’re disappointed we lost this game.”
Lance finished 15 of 30 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns with his first career interception. After not running much in the first half, the 6-foot-4, 226-pound Lance finished with 145 rushing yards and two scores on 15 attempts.
“If it wasn’t for the quarterback run, I think we would just have played about as good a game as you could," said Brown, whose team is 2-2 this season. “In the end, I thought the equalizer in the second half was the quarterback run. We just weren’t able to get Trey Lance down enough consistently in the run game.”
After a sluggish first half, the Bison looked poised to pull away from the Bears early in the third quarter. A two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second half gave them an 18-6 lead. Bison junior linebacker James Kaczor converted a two-point conversion and NDSU suddenly had something they were lacking in the first half: Big-play momentum.
The Bears, however, turned the tide. Two touchdowns in a span of three minutes, one in which came after Lance’s first interception in 17 games as a starter, quickly put the Bears up 20-18 with 9:44 to play in the third quarter.
“Trey’s not perfect," Kaczor said. "He’s a really, really, really, really good football player, but sometimes things just don’t go your way.”
Both UCA scores in the third quarter were quarterback Breylin Smith touchdown passes, one covered 22 yards to Tyler Hudson, and the other was 3 yards to Lujuan Winningham.
“We were right there knocking on the doorstep and felt like we had a shot," Brown said. “If that’s the best team at the Division I FCS level, we like where we are at in our progression. We’re not far behind and our guys proved that today."
Lance answered the Bears surge with a 14 yard-yard run for a 25-20 lead with 13:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
UCA sliced the Bison secondary on its ensuing drive. Smith was 5-for-5 passing and his 11-yarder to Winningham gave UCA the lead back at 28-25 following Smith’s two-point conversion run with 10:35 to play.
Smith completed 25 of 38 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
“Really today in the quarterback showdown, other than the run game, he put on a good show," Brown said.
A well-conceived misdirection scoring pass to Luepke put the Bison back on top for good. It concluded a 7-play, 75-yard drive and it was 32-28 with 7:35 remaining.
“It’s a glimpse of what we see every day in practice,” Lance said of Luepke. “He just loves to hit people so he’s a fun guy to be around and obviously everyone celebrates when the fullback scores a touchdown.”
NDSU struggled to gain offensive traction in the first half with four punts and a fumble on their first five drives.
The Bison started to get things rolling in the second quarter with a seven-play scoring drive that covered 75 yards. Lance capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Babicz to give NDSU a 7-6 lead with 9:00 play in the opening half.
On their next drive, the Bison added a Jake Reinholz 27-yard field goal for a 10-6 lead with 2:32 to play in the second quarter. That drive covered 50 yards on nine plays.
Lance completed 6 of 16 passes for 47 yards and one touchdown in the opening two quarters. He also rushed for 29 yards on four attempts. Lance responded in the second half with two rushing touchdowns and on TD pass.
“I think we were a little flat coming out," Luepke said. “I think throughout the game we just increased playing better and better.”