FARGO — North Dakota State's offense needed a little help getting started Saturday. The Bison's special teams provided it.
Jayden Price returned a punt 41 yards to the Northern Iowa 9-yard line early in the third quarter, setting up a much-needed touchdown in NDSU's 34-20 victory at the Fargodome.
16 plays, 80 yards, and 8:26 of smashmouth football.— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) October 9, 2021
34-17, Bison. pic.twitter.com/Pq26FfjiDz
The Bison led 13-10 at halftime, but scored just six points on three trips inside the UNI 20. Jake Reinholz made two field goals and missed another.
Price gave the offense a short field and the Bison didn't squander the opportunity.
Price, a starting cornerback, took UNI punter Nate Murphy's kick at the 50 after the Panthers stalled on the first drive of the second half. Price veered right and outran UNI to the edge, sprinting to the 10 before he was hauled down by Eric Mooney.
NDSU quarterback Quincy Patterson grinded four yards into the end zone three plays later for a touchdown, giving the Bison a 20-10 lead.
“That definitely got me fired up,” Patterson said of the punt return.
UNI's next possession ended with a fumble by quarterback Theo Day that was recovered by NDSU defensive tackle Costner Ching. Patterson hit tight end Noah Gindorff on a short TD pass and the Bison led 27-10 with 9:02 left in the third quarter.
"It was kind of back-to-back big momentum changes," Ching said.
Looked like targeting, wasn't targeting
It looked like Northern Iowa safety Benny Sapp III hit NDSU receiver Christian Watson with a helmet-to-helmet hit after a big pass play in the first quarter, which could be considered a targeting call. That would've resulted in a game ejection for Sapp and an advantageous penalty for the Bison.
But it wasn't to be. Twice.
Officials on the field didn't call Sapp for targeting and a video replay confirmed the call.
MVFC associate commissioner Mike Kern wrote in an email: "League staff would not provide a statement regarding officiating during a game, nor would we comment about a judgment call at any time. Coordinator of Officials Bill Carollo and his staff at the Command Center in Chicago review plays of this nature and provide any necessary follow-up to the participating institutions."
Facing second-and-11 from the UNI 49, Patterson hit Watson over the middle with a pass. Watson caught it at the Panthers 21 and ran to the 11, where he was tackled by a pair of UNI defenders. As Watson was going down, Sapp shot in and hit the Bison receiver in the head with his helmet.
According to college rules, targeting hits include "leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area" and "lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet." College rules also protect "defenseless" players.
The rulebook says, "When in question, a player is defenseless."
NDSU's drive stalled at the 9 yard line and the Bison settled for a 27-yard field goal from Jake Reinholz for a 10-0 lead.
"The message that I got was it wasn't targeting," said Bison head coach Matt Entz. "I totally agree, I don't think he was a defenseless player, but I saw ducking of the head and I know it's in the rule. It is what it is. Those guys are human, too."
Wisnewski shines with Kaczor out
NDSU linebacker James Kaczor missed his third game of the season and Entz said this time it wasn't a groin injury that plagued him in the past but "related" to that injury. NDSU didn't see much of a drop-off with sophomore Cole Wisnewski taking his place, however.
Wisnewski had six tackles, one quarterback sack and a QB hurry.
Asked when Kaczor returns how he plans on fitting Wisnewski in the lineup, Entz said, "We'll find ways."
"You see us, we use everybody," Entz said. "It is mass chaos on the sideline getting people in and out. We'll find ways to use him. When James is back, hopefully he doesn't have to play every snap. Right there we'll be able to get both of them greater longevity through the year because we can split some reps."
Wisnewski said he found out early in the week he would probably get the call.
"I had a lot of time to get better," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes in practice but got better as the week went on."
Farley not pleased with UNI miscues
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley wasn't pleased with his team's miscues against the Bison that included nine penalties for 77 yards. The Panthers had a false start on their first drive of the game after a Bison fumble in the first quarter. That eventually led to a punt.
UNI added another false start on the opening drive of the third quarter that also ended in a quick three-and-out, which led to Price's game-changing punt return.
"It’s got to come from within the players to not accept those penalties because those are unacceptable," Farley said. "You can’t afford to do that when you’re playing up there."
Farley added his team didn't play disciplined at key moments against the Bison.
"You look at our offense, we can throw the ball, we can rush the football," Farley said. "We just weren’t disciplined and the penalties absolutely killed us and it stopped our drives and it actually killed our first drive in the first series. ... We didn’t have the discipline on offense. We didn’t have the discipline on defense because those coverage breakdowns were discipline. Those errors are what created the win, technically."
Defensive line depth impressive
UNI quarterback Theo Day may wake up on Sunday morning a little sore. The Bison defensive line had constant pressure on the transfer from Michigan State all day, sacking him five times and getting hits on him numerous other times.
NDSU did it without starting defensive ends Brayden Thomas and Spencer Waege. Thomas is out with an elbow injury and Waege is out for the year with a torn ACL. The Bison found one remedy moving defensive tackle Will Mostaert to end. He had a sack and forced fumble that Ching tried to scoop and score.
Ching was tackled at the UNI 21-yard line. NDSU capitalized scoring on a 3-yard pass to Noah Gindorff and it was 27-10 in the third quarter.
"The guys that stepped up in the defensive room especially, it's fun to watch them because they got their chance and capitalized on it," Ching said. "It's fun to watch them pin their ears back and go after it. The defense has some touching up to do, but I'm liking where we're at right now."
Five different players had QB sacks: Mostaert, Wisnewski, Lane Tucker, Javier Derritt and Logan McCormick.
Odds and ends
As expected, Bison starting center Jalen Sundell did not dress because of a knee injury. He was replaced by sophomore Brandon Westberg, who played against North Dakota when Sundell was injured in the first half of that game. ... Defensive end Brayden Thomas, who injured his elbow against UND, did not dress. ... NDSU linebacker Luke Weerts did not dress for the second straight game. ... Entz said his team had some bumps and bruises from the game "but nothing I'm too alarmed with."