FARGO — The North Dakota State rushing game was in overdrive Saturday at Gate City Bank Field and Eastern Washington had no answers.
The Bison scored 35 unanswered points and rushed for more than 400 yards to fuel a 42-20 victory against the Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs at the Fargodome before 3,587 fans.
“At the end of the day it just comes down to putting your hand in the dirt and moving the guy across from you," said Bison senior offensive lineman Cordell Volson. “We always talk about imposing your will, just continuing to scratch and claw for another inch, another yard.”
True freshman running back Dominic Gonnella and redshirt freshman Jalen Bussey each rushed for more than 100 yards as the Bison (7-2) advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for an 11th consecutive season. NDSU is slated to play at No. 2-seeded Sam Houston State (7-0) at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2, in Huntsville, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN.
“I’d say nasty, dirty, stinky, nasty is what we preach all week," Gonnella said of the Bison offensive line. "They played really well today. They played with a chip on their shoulder and they played through the echo of the whistle and it really showed up on the scoreboard.”
Eastern Washington (5-2) built an early 14-point lead, but couldn't contain the Bison ground attack as the game progressed. NDSU rushed for 422 yards on 57 attempts. Gonnella finished with 163 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts, while Bussey added 143 yards on 13 carries. Those were the first career rushing TDs for Gonnella.
“We’re a run-first program," Bison head coach Matt Entz said.
“It just wasn’t our day," Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best said. "We prepared well, we knew what was going to come and we played against a very good offensive line and we just didn’t have our best day today.”
Bison true freshman quarterback Cam Miller made his first collegiate start against the Eagles. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Miller completed 6 of 11 passes for 52 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 30 yards and a TD on five attempts.
“I think he did a phenomenal job," Volson said. “He commanded the huddle.”
NDSU started to widen its lead early in the second half, taking advantage of a Dom Jones interception. Three plays later, Gonnella scored on a 7-yard touchdown run to give the Bison a 28-20 edge with 9 minutes, 29 seconds to play in the third quarter. Gonnella had rushes of 13 and 21 yards to set up that score. Gonnella added a 1-yard scoring run on the ensuing drive for a 35-20 lead with 1:43 to play in the third. That capped an 86-yard drive that took eight plays.
On NDSU's next drive, Miller found tight end Noah Gindorff on a 1-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bison a 42-20 lead with 8:23 to play in the fourth quarter. That drive covered 71 yards and lasted 13 plays. The Bison scored the game's final 35 points.
“I think it comes down to being excited for another opportunity," Volson said of playing in the quarterfinals. "We know that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat anybody, but we also know if we don’t play the way we are capable of playing, anyone can beat us.”
The Bison scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to help them surge into the lead for good. Bison fullback Hunter Luepke capped a 68-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run that trimmed the Eastern Washington lead to 20-14 with 4:54 to play in the second quarter.
After Eagles kicker Seth Harrison missed a 54-yard field goal, NDSU countered with another score. This time the Bison covered 64 yards in four plays, including three rushes for 60 yards. Miller capped the quick march with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Gindorff to give NDSU a 21-20 lead with 32 seconds to play until halftime. The Bison never trailed from that point.
“When things are just clicking, it’s really hard to stop us," Gonnella said.
Miller had a 13-yard run with 23 seconds to play in the first quarter, cutting the Eagles' lead to 14-7 after Eastern Washington had built an early two touchdown lead. EWU running back Tamarick Pierce gave his team a 7-0 edge on a 3-yard scoring run with 11:12 to play in the first quarter. Eagles senior quarterback Eric Barriere added a 3-yard TD run for a 14-0 lead with 4:58 to play in the first.
“My vibe was probably more concerned than our players," Entz said of the slow start. "We have a number of young, confident players on the sideline and I think they were just hanging in there.”
The Eagles had a 20-7 lead after Barriere threw a 3-yard TD pass to Andrew Boston with 10:00 to play in the second quarter.
“The first half we were in a groove," said Barriere, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
EWU was held scoreless over the game's final 40 minutes. Eastern Washington had 243 yards on 37 plays at halftime. The Bison limited the Eagles to 64 yards on 23 plays in the second half.
“We just didn’t execute," Barriere said of the second half. “We didn’t help our defense.”
The Bison had the ball for nearly 22 of the 30 minutes in the second half. NDSU rushed for 259 yards after halftime.
“We knew that we’d have to run the football and let their offense get cold and let our defense get rest," Volson said.