FARGO — No. 5-ranked North Dakota State leaned on its defense and a fresh face at quarterback Saturday afternoon at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
That combination helped the Bison turn away an Illinois State rally in a 21-13 victory in Missouri Valley Football Conference play before 6,145 fans.
NDSU (4-1, 3-1 MVFC) is set to play undefeated and No. 3-ranked University of North Dakota (4-0, 4-0) on Saturday, March 20, in a critical conference game. The Bison have won 31 consecutive home games.
The Bison forced nine punts and held the Redbirds out of the end zone until the third quarter Saturday. NDSU has allowed 13 points over its past eight quarters, including a 25-0 shutout win at Missouri State the previous weekend. The Redbirds finished with 257 yards on 67 plays and were 4-for-17 on third-down conversions.
"We're playing harder," said Bison sophomore cornerback Jayden Price, who had a punt return for a score. "We're playing faster. We're playing more confident. We trust in one another and we're just going out there having fun."
Bison true freshman quarterback Cam Miller helped seal the victory with a 6-yard touchdown run for a 21-13 lead with 3 minutes, 39 seconds remaining. That came on a third-and-goal play and capped an 84-yard, 13-play drive after Illinois State had trimmed the Bison lead to one point.
“What a great drive by some of our young guys late in the fourth quarter," Bison head coach Matt Entz said.
The Bison made a quarterback switch in the third quarter after senior starter Zeb Noland threw his second interception in the game on NDSU's first drive of the second half. Miller, who had been put in at QB in spot situations this spring, took over for good after that Noland turnover.
"We just needed a spark," Entz said.
Entz said after the game he hasn't made a decision whether he would make Miller the starter at QB. Miller completed 5 of 7 passes for 61 yards to go along with his rushing touchdown. He rushed for 57 yards on 11 attempts to lead the team in rushing.
"I knew that I was going to get some reps and I needed to take advantage of the opportunity," said Miller, who is from Solon, Iowa.
The Bison protected that eight-point lead in the closing seconds, as a Redbirds drive stalled at midfield with less than a minute remaining. ISU's final play came from its own 47-yard line and quarterback Bryce Jefferson's final deep throw was well short of the end zone and broken up by NDSU linebacker Jackson Hankey as time expired.
The Bison rotated four new players on the defensive line at times during that final ISU drive. NDSU finished with two sacks, including seven tackles for a loss, and one interception.
“You need to have depth at all four positions," Entz said of the defensive line. “We’re fortunate enough to have 10 guys that can play for us and 10 guys that we trust to play in big-time situations.”
The Redbirds got on the board in the third quarter, taking advantage of another Bison turnover. ISU tight end Tanner Taula caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Jefferson to cut the NDSU lead to 14-7 with 6:40 to play in the third. The Redbirds took advantage of a short field, starting the drive at the Bison 47-yard line after a Kobe Johnson fumble.
The Redbirds added a Tyler Pennington 1-yard touchdown run that trimmed the Bison lead to 14-13 with 11:59 to play in the fourth quarter. The score stayed that way after NDSU defensive lineman Spencer Waege blocked the Aidan Bresnahan point-after kick. That ISU scoring drive was helped by the Bison, who jumped offsides on a fourth-and-3 punt play near midfield.
A few plays after that drive-extending offsides play, Jefferson hit Austin Nagel in stride for a catch and run that covered 45 yards to the Bison 3-yard line. That long third-and-9 passing play set up the Pennington score.
"We're a young team and we let them play with us, so then we had a dogfight the rest of the game," said Bison linebacker James Kaczor. "We've got to learn how to finish teams in the first half."
For a second consecutive game, the Bison got a special teams spark. Price returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bison a 7-0 lead with 11:20 remaining in the first quarter.
On the ensuing possession, NDSU forced an Illinois State three-and-out to quickly get the ball back to the Bison offense. NDSU drove 67 yards on eight plays to build a two-touchdown lead. Miller sparked that drive with a 23-yard pass play to Christian Watson.
Johnson capped the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run that gave the Bison a 14-0 lead with 5:37 to play in the first quarter.
The Bison threatened to make it a three-score game early in the second quarter, but running back Dominic Gonnella was stonewalled at the goal line on a fourth-and-goal play from the 1. ISU defensive backs Jarrell Jackson and Clayton Isbell were credited with the key stop. The Redbirds took over on downs with 14:54 to play in the second quarter.
“They do an outstanding job defensively," Entz said of Illinois State. "They’re bringing pressure, I bet, 70% of the time. … They have a nice system.”
The Illinois State defense helped keep the Redbirds in striking distance, heading into the fourth quarter, forcing four Bison turnovers. ISU defensive back Charles Woods had two interceptions and the Redbirds also recovered two fumbles. Isbell had seven tackles, including two for a loss, and also forced a fumble.
“We knew coming into this game we definitely have to be physical and create a lot of turnovers," Isbell said. "Prior to the game the DB unit did not have one turnover. We wanted to give the offense good field position and that’s what we did for the most part.”
NDSU limited the Redbirds offense to 79 yards and 29 plays, including 52 rushing yards. ISU had five first downs in the first half, averaging 2.7 yards per play through the first 30 minutes. The Bison had a 14-0 lead at the half.
NDSU rushed for 54 yards on 17 attempts, gaining 153 total yards in the opening half. Noland completed 6 of 12 passes for 76 yards with one interception by halftime. The Bison finished with 287 yards on 59 plays.
Entz liked the way Miller played in the second half.
"I'm extremely excited about the composure he had," Entz said. "I'm extremely excited about his ability to make some plays. He wasn't afraid to pull the ball down and moves the chains with his feet. I think you see his athleticism."