FARGO — The North Dakota State defense tightened in the game's final 24 minutes, while backup quarterback Cam Miller came to the rescue Saturday afternoon.
Miller zipped two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally No. 3-ranked NDSU to a 27-20 victory against No. 17-ranked Missouri State in Missouri Valley Football Conference play at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
While Miller got the Bison offense rolling, NDSU held the Bears scoreless on their final five drives after MSU had built a seven-point lead less than six minutes into the second half.
The Bison (7-0, 4-0 MVFC) remained undefeated and tied with Southern Illinois (6-1, 4-0) for first place in the Missouri Valley. All other teams in the MVFC have at least two conference losses.
"Playing fast, playing hard and playing together," Bison linebacker Jasir Cox said of the team's defensive success. "I know that if we're going to miss a tackle, we're going to have 10 other guys there to help us out."
More from North Dakota State's victory against Missouri State:
- Miller magic: Backup QB rallies Bison to home victory against Missouri State
- Kolpack: QB Cam Miller wanted no part of transfer portal, rescues Bison against Missouri State
- PHOTOS: Scenes from dramatic Bison comeback victory against Missouri State
Miller completed 7 of 9 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns after entering the game with less than four minutes to play in the third quarter, taking over for starter Quincy Patterson.
"I just felt like we need a spark plug of some sort," Bison head coach Matt Entz said of the move at QB. "Cam is playing his best football and I said that back in August when we made the decision to start Quincy."
Miller tossed a 23-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Christian Watson to give the Bison a 27-20 lead with 4 minutes, 57 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. That gave the Bison their first lead of the game. NDSU scored the game's final 14 points.
"I feel like every week I've been ready to go when my number's been called," Miller said. "When I didn't get the job I just decided to tell myself that my time was going to come. It could be next week, it could be down the road in two years. But it came today and I felt like I was ready to go."
The Bison tied the score early in the third quarter after Patterson connected with Watson for a 45-yard pass play on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. That led to a Jake Reinholz 41-yard field goal to make it 13-13 with 12:20 to play in the third.
The Bears countered on their next drive, taking advantage of NDSU targeting and defensive holding penalties. Bison safety Dawson Weber was disqualified from the game for targeting. MSU running back Tobias Little scored on a 5-yard TD run for a 20-13 lead with 9:08 to play in the third quarter. That drive covered 75 yards in six plays. The Bears were held scoreless from that point.
“Our back was against the wall and you saw us kind of rise up a little bit," Entz said. "I wish we would start that stuff in the first quarter though.”
The Bison defense finished with five sacks with four of them coming in the second half and three in the fourth quarter. Cox added a third-quarter interception that he returned to the MSU 21, but the Bison were unable to convert that into points. Cox has three interceptions over the past two games.
“Their pass rush got to us a little bit and that probably ends up being the difference in the game is the way they rushed the passer compared to the way we did," said Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino.
Bison again evened the score early in the fourth quarter. Miller tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Phoenix Sproles to make it 20-20 with 13:40 to play in the fourth quarter. That drive covered 59 yards in four plays.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit for making the switch at quarterback and him coming in and performing well," Petrino said. “They got momentum from it and were able to run the ball and throw it and come from behind and beat us.”
The Bears had the momentum early in the game.
Missouri State built an early double-digit lead, scoring on its first two possessions. Montrae Braswell returned the opening kickoff 62 yards to the Bison 37-yard line. Moments later, kicker Jose Pizano drilled a 47-yard field goal to give Missouri State at 3-0 lead with 12:56 to play in the first quarter.
On their next drive, the Bears marched 61 yards in four plays. Little scored on an 11-yard touchdown run for a 10-0 lead with 9:07 to play in the first. Missouri State had 141 yards on 18 plays in the first quarter, compared to 34 yards on eight plays for the Bison in the opening 15 minutes.
NDSU started to claw back into the game after Bears punt returner Hunter Wood mishandled a punt that the Bison recovered at the MSU 15. On the next play, Patterson scored on a 15-yard TD run to cut the Bears lead to 10-7 with 12:09 to play in the second quarter.
The teams exchanged field goals late in the first half. Pizano drilled a 25-yard attempt for a 13-7 lead with 1:13 to play until halftime. Reinholz countered with a 46-yard field goal to trim the MSU lead to 13-10 on the final play of the first half.
The Bears gained 218 yards in the opening half on 31 plays, while limiting the Bison to 114 yards on 31 plays. Missouri State had a four-plus minute edge in time of possession through 30 minutes. NDSU's defense, however, tightened after halftime, limiting the Bears to seven points and 103 yards on 26 plays over the final two quarters.
Bears quarterback Jason Shelley completed 16 of 25 passes for 242 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. Shelley had 147 of those passing yards in the first half. The Bison limited the Bears to 44 yards on 11 plays in the fourth quarter. NDSU gained 131 yards over the final 15 minutes.
“To win it in the fourth quarter we had to make more plays and they made the plays to win the game in the fourth quarter," Petrino said.