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Bison notebook: NDSU RB Kobe Johnson unleashes career-best performance against Montana

NDSU senior Kobe Johnson rushed for more than 200 yards against the Montana Grizzlies in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson rips off a 73-yard touchdown run against Montana during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
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FARGO — It's unlikely North Dakota State running back Kobe Johnson will have another day during which he averages more than 17 yards a carry on more than a few chances. But he did it at the best time imaginable Saturday.

The senior from Georgia carried 12 times for 206 yards in the Bison's 49-20 victory over Montana in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at the Fargodome. That's an average of 17.2 yards per carry.

Johnson scored on touchdown runs of 75 yards and 73 yards, two of the four scoring runs of at least 68 yards by the Bison.

"The O-line. It's a testament to them," Johnson said. "There's not much I can't do when they're doing what they're doing, you know what I mean? When they're making big holes for me and things like that, all glory to them."

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson is swarmed by his teammates after his second touchdown run against Montana during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

The 206 yards was a career-high for Johnson, but the long bursts for scores were nothing new. He holds the NDSU record for a run from scrimmage with a 97-yard TD run against Indiana State last season. Johnson also had a 76-yard touchdown run in the national championship victory over Montana State.

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Johnson's longest rush this season before Saturday was 47 yards against Western Illinois.

"What I was impressed with, on Kobe's last touchdown he's pulling away from the Montana defense at the end of the game," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "That's (strength and conditioning coach) Jim Kramer for you right there. Pride and conditioning."

Johnson led the way on a dominant day for the Bison running game. TaMerik Williams had 101 yards on 11 carries, including a 68-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Cam Miller also went 68 yards for a touchdown. NDSU finished with 453 yards on 42 carries, an average of 10.8 yards per rush.

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North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz congratulates TaMerik Williams on his touchdown against Montana during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/Forum Communications Co.

"They got into 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) and they ran zone and cut back on the backside tackle," Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. "Then they have power, which is their base play they run out of a couple different personnel groups. They don't get fooled."

Previous to Saturday, NDSU had seven plays all season that went for 60 or more yards. The 453 yards rushing ties the Bison's season-high, attained at Western Illinois in early November.

Grizzlies pick it, six it, but Bison weather it

Johnson's first touchdown run, which came with 10:46 left in the third quarter, was one of the most important plays of the game because it came immediately after Montana returned an interception for a TD to pull within 21-20.

Cornerback Corbin Walker's interception return for a touchdown looked to be a game-changing play. He stepped in front of a Cam Miller pass along the Grizzlies sideline and ran it back 58 yards for a score to make it a one-point game.

But on the next play from scrimmage, Johnson burst through the line and sprinted untouched for a touchdown to give the Bison a 28-20 cushion.

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"After the pick-six for us, the momentum swung our way, obviously," Montana safety Robby Hauck said. "Credit to them, they were able to respond to that. It's an unfortunate thing where you got the ball carrier wrapped up and he's able to break a tackle loose and get into the open field.

"A team like them, they're so fundamentally sound and rarely make mistakes. You have to capitalize when you have the chance."

Johnson said the Bison talked about flipping momentum back their way as they gathered in the huddle after Walker's interception.

"We got to change momentum," Johnson said. "They got it. They got it that way. We knew we had to get it back to our side. We went out there and took some deep breaths before the next drive and we just knew we had to execute."

It was Miller's third interception of the season. The last time NDSU threw an interception for a touchdown was in 2017 at Western Illinois, when CB Quentin Moon took an Easton Stick pass 43 yards the other way.

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson breaks away for a 75-yard touchdown run against Montana's during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Cardinal's kickoffs in 2nd half took Montana weapons out of game

It was obvious from the first kickoff that NDSU was on guard for Montana's potent return game. And that didn't go as planned, especially late in the first half.

NDSU's Cole Wisniewski recovered a Montana fumble in the end zone with 58 seconds remaining in the second quarter and the Bison led 21-10. But the Grizzlies' Junior Bergen took a short kickoff that perhaps didn't have the height on it for the Bison to get down and cover Bergen in time.

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He returned it to near midfield. That drive ended with a Nico Ramos 36-yard field goal with nine seconds left and the Griz kept it a one-possession game at halftime trailing 21-13.

Bergen also returned NDSU's first punt of the game 27 yards to the Bison 45-yard line, but the NDSU defense stiffened.

NDSU found an answer in the third quarter. Bison kicker Will Cardinal put his first three kickoffs through the end zone, preventing Bergen or Malik Flowers from a return.

"Will the Thrill got going," Entz said.

Cardinal kicked four of his five second-half kickoffs long enough that there was no return. The one that wasn't came after the Bison were called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a long Johnson TD run and Cardinal had to kick off from his own 20-yard line.

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Injuries continue to mount for Bison

In a season that's already seen several key players lost to injury, Saturday did not offer a respite for NDSU.

Bison tight end Logan Hofstedt, who also plays fullback, left the game with an apparent arm or shoulder injury. He was wearing a sling on the sidelines.

NDSU linebacker Luke Weerts appeared to suffer a leg injury and left the game in the first half. Entz said Weerts could've returned to the game but was held out.

Bison defensive end Spencer Waege suffered a back injury when he was hit by Montana's Chris Walker after NDSU's Nick Kubitz intercepted a pass and was returning it. Waege was sitting on the turf and Walker hit him in the back.

Entz was asked if Waege was OK.

"Yes, he is," Entz said. "I think he's stiff right now. He told me he got folded over and that's a guy coming off a big injury (Waege suffered a season-ending knee injury last year). I think he had to check to make sure all his body parts were there as he laid there. I think he was a little bit nervous about his knee as well and I get it."

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North Dakota State's Nick Kubitz sprints down the Montana sidelines with an interception return during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Odds and ends

Bison defensive end Tony Pierce, who missed two of the previous three games because of an ankle injury, returned to the lineup. ... Montana starting running back Nick Ostmo didn't play. He was injured late in the Griz's victory over Southeast Missouri State in the first round. ... NDSU used receiver Braylon Henderson to receive kickoffs with RaJa Nelson. Henderson replaced D.J. Hart, who left the Bison in the transfer portal. ... NDSU has a season-high six sacks against the Grizzlies. Bison defensive end Dylan Hendricks had 1-1/2 sacks to lead to way.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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