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Johnson, Williams thriving as 1-2 punch in Bison backfield heading into FCS quarterfinals

NDSU running backs Kobe Johnson and TaMerik Williams combined for more than 300 rushing yards in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

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North Dakota State running back TaMerik Williams ranks second on the team in rushing yards heading into FCS quarterfinals Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, against the Samford Bulldogs.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — North Dakota State senior TaMerik Williams is the now the "power, downhill" back in the Bison backfield with fullback Hunter Luepke done for the season due to a shoulder injury. But Williams said he's more than brute force.

The 6-foot-1, 229-pound Williams also has the speed for an explosive play.

"I feel like a lot of people here don't know that, I really have some jets and I've got some wheels on me, but I definitely can fly if I get a breakout run," said Williams, who is from Angleton, Texas.

Williams showed that game-breaking burst with a 68-yard touchdown run last weekend against Montana, also showing his power and balance in breaking into the open before racing into the end zone. Williams and Kobe Johnson have emerged as a 1-2 rushing punch heading into the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals. That Bison are in the national quarterfinals for a 13th consecutive season.

NDSU (10-2) hosts Samford (11-1) at 6 p.m. Friday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Johnson and Williams combined for 307 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 23 attempts against Montana in the second round of the playoffs.

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

"We complement each other in the sense that he's more of the power, downhill (back)," said Johnson, from Lawrenceville, Ga. "I'm not going to take anything away from his game, he can get lateral, too, make some moves. I'm more of the speed back, the more jitterbug type back."

Johnson leads the team in rushing with 714 yards and five touchdowns on 88 attempts, and Williams ranks second with 660 yards and eight TDs on 85 attempts. Both have emerged late in the season and into the playoffs after both dealt with injuries earlier in the regular season. Their roles increased after Luepke injured his shoulder in the second to last game of the regular season.

"They were good players before Hunter got hurt," said Bison head coach Matt Entz.

The 5-foot-9, 188-pound Johnson had touchdown runs of 75 and 73 yards against the Grizzlies last weekend and finished with a career-high 206 rushing yards. Williams added 101 rushing yards, including his aforementioned 68-yard scoring run.

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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.

"Kobe is very elusive," Williams said. "He's not that big, but I think that also helps ... it's hard to find him when he's cutting and slashing through the (line of scrimmage) and I can just come in there and bruise the defense down a little bit or break off a long one if I need to."

Williams isn't about to give the mantle to fastest running back on the team to Johnson.

"It's a tough question, we definitely ask each other about it, honestly we'd probably have to line it up and see," Williams said before adding with a laugh. "I'm going to tell (you) that I'm the fastest. We definitely could race."

Both Williams and Johnson credit the offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks for giving them the running lanes to be productive. NDSU rushed for 453 yards on 42 attempts against the Grizzlies. The Bison are averaging 277.7 rushing yard per game heading into the quarterfinals against Samford.

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"When you have a good front five like that, that's the foundation to a great offense," Johnson said. "Those guys coming into practice each and every week just giving their all and pouring back into us. ... No matter who is back there carrying the ball, whether it's a running back, quarterback, we could line up a receiver back there and they could do the same things."

Senior left tackle Cody Mauch and senior left guard Nash Jensen help anchor the offensive line along with junior center Brandon Westberg, senior right guard Jake Kubas and junior right tackle Grey Zabel.

"If I needed to run through a wall for them, I definitely would," Williams said. "I know they feel the same way about me. ... Nobody really notices, but I hang out with the 'Rams' more than anybody on the team. Those are my guys."

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North Dakota State offensive linemen Jake Kubas, Grey Zabel, Brandon Westberg, Nash Jensen and Cody Mauch take the field for a series against Montana during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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North Dakota State's TaMerik Williams fends off Montana's Corbin Walker during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.
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