Fourth-ranked Bison stay in Valley contention with win over Illinois State
Bison use stout defensive effort to shut out Redbirds in final three quarters
FARGO — The Missouri Valley Football Conference race is shrinking like the number of warm days in the Red River Valley. On a beautiful Saturday two days from Halloween, North Dakota State saw its defense return to its old scary self and remained in contention for a league title.
Not many other teams are. The Bison improved to 4-1 in the Valley, 6-2 overall, with a 24-7 win at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome over Illinois State, which fell to 3-2 in league play.
The Bison still trail league unbeaten South Dakota State but it’s becoming a two-team race with SDSU and NDSU. Southern Illinois, which was alone in second coming into Saturday, lost 37-36 at home to Northern Iowa.
Moreover, with three games left in the regular season, playoff scenarios are beginning to enter the picture. No. 4-ranked NDSU and top-ranked SDSU are the only league teams with two or fewer overall losses.
The Bison turned in one of their better defensive efforts of the season, holding Illinois State to 76 rushing yards.
"We couldn't do anything in the second half on either side of the football," said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. "We didn't match their intensity."
Said NDSU head coach Matt Entz: "If you look at the yardage, majority of theirs came in first half. The difference in the first half and second half is they were converting first downs in the first half and we did a good job on that in the second half."
The Redbirds may have been first to put something on the scoreboard in front of 16,172 fans, but the NDSU defense was up to the task the rest of the way. A key stretch came with the Bison holding a 17-7 lead and Illinois State facing a fourth-and-1 near midfield early in the fourth quarter.
ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad’s pass was tipped and fell incomplete. The Bison promptly went 52 yards in 11 plays the other way, getting a 12-yard touchdown run from backup quarterback Cole Payton for a 24-7 advantage with 7:30 remaining.
"We expected run but were ready for anything," said Bison linebacker Logan Kopp, who had seven tackles starting for the injured James Kaczor.
Perhaps another timely defensive stand came early in the third quarter. NDSU took the second half kickoff and got to midfield before punting. The Redbirds took over at their 9-yard line, but a third down sack by Bison defensive end Spencer Waege put a quick end to that possession.
"That was huge, that was big time," said Bison quarterback Cam Miller. "Anytime the defense gets us off the field and gives us the ball back that's huge, especially if we can get the ball around midfield."
Taking over from the ISU 44, NDSU needed only six plays to take a 17-7 advantage. Miller got the score running it in from five yards out for a two-possession lead.
Each team traded scoring drives in the first quarter. The Redbirds took a 7-0 lead going 75 yards in nine plays, the last 13 yards a pass from Annexstad to receiver Daniel Sobkowicz.
ISU overcame a first-and-goal situation from the 19 after a holding penalty.
The Bison responded by getting their first big play, a 40-yard pass from Miller to Braylon Henderson. That was followed one play later with a Miller-to-Hunter Luepke 20-yard touchdown pass and it was 7-7.
Like they did in a 2019 FCS playoff game, which NDSU won 9-3 in a game of field goals, the Redbirds made it tough on the Bison running game. They had 130 yards on the ground in the first two quarters, but took a 10-7 halftime advantage thanks to a Destin Talbert interception.
Talbert, a senior cornerback, picked off Annexstad with Illinois State driving and returned it 37 yards to near midfield with 2:04 before halftime. It was NDSU’s first interception since Michael Tutsie picked off a Youngstown State pass on Oct. 1 and Talbert’s first of the season.
"Big takeaway," Entz said. "It was 7-7 at the time and they were converting third downs. Destin did a great job, ball was overthrown and good pressure (on the quarterback)."
NDSU reached the Redbird 11-yard line before running out of time, with Griffin Crosa kicking a 29-yard field goal with four seconds left.
Miller finished 20 of 30 passing for 174 yards and one touchdown.
"They were committing eight to the run game," Entz said of the Redbirds defense. "Cam continues to do a great job of understanding the game plan."