Kolpack: Bison take page from 1970s; Williams becomes go-to back
Junior transfer from SMU was a load to handle in convincing Bison win in Youngstown.
The game plan looked direct and simple. Power football. North Dakota State on a cold Saturday afternoon took their two biggest running backs and went all Sam Neis on Youngstown State.
Sam is the former offensive line coach at NDSU in the 1970s who coined the term “rams,” the nickname for the Bison offensive linemen. It came from Neis challenging his players one day for not playing with full effort and teamwork and a day later one of the captains decided to call the O-line “Sam’s rams.”
Maybe the Bison have decided to shed the running back by committee approach. If so, junior TaMerik Williams won the job.
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He had 15 carries in the first half alone in a 42-17 NDSU victory at Stambaugh Stadium, a win that was old-school style for the Bison. At 39 degrees and snow flurries at the outset, it felt like a November day at old Dacotah Field.
Sam would have approved. After a several-game stretch where the offensive line looked average, NDSU found some sort of remedy up front.
“I’m going to say this, they had more fun playing today than I think they’ve had in the past,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “I think because of the nature of who they are at our university, it’s all about the rams and defense here and those kids put a lot of pressure on themselves every week to execute. Today they just came out and let it go and played with clear minds and I think you saw the byproduct of that.”
Williams certainly let it go. How significant was 15 carries in the first half? The previous high for carries in one game by a Bison running back was 13.
“As a running back, I think it’s good to get multiple carries in a row,” Williams said. “Once the defense starts to feel you out and you start to heat up, those 3 or 4 yards turn into 10 or 12 yards.”
He finished with 18 carries for 137 yards. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, that kind of potential is what NDSU had in mind when he transferred from SMU, where he found himself buried in the depth chart.
“It’s definitely been a journey going into the transfer portal, coming here and being a part of something special,” Williams said. “The biggest thing for me has been growth. I love being here so far.”
NDSU was looking for a bigger back after Adam Cofield entered the transfer portal and ended up at Western Kentucky.
“Mostly a downhill runner,” Williams said. “One-cut guy. I don’t do all of that juking and stuff. It’s just not me. As soon as I get the ball, I make one cut and go.”
The committee approach worked in September when the Bison ran over Albany, Valparaiso and Towson. It didn’t matter who was back there, the holes were plenty and the yards came in bunches.
But the Missouri Valley is another beast when it comes to defense. There are bigger and faster linemen at most league schools. The running back depth shrank against Youngstown after starting running back Dominic Gonnella didn’t make the trip because of a chronic ankle injury.
Williams knew early in the week he was going to get his shot.
“He just keeps getting better, he pushes himself every day in practice,” said Bison quarterback Cam Miller.
The Bison went with Williams for his first NDSU career start and 236-pound Hunter Luepke, who opened the scoring with a 49-yard touchdown run. It was classic Luepke, who shed a few tackles on a run up the middle like the Penguin defenders weighed 125 pounds.
But Luepke reinjured a hamstring and didn’t play the rest of the game. No matter. NDSU kept feeding its new go-to guy in taking a 35-3 lead early in the second half.
Williams took his team’s first play of the third quarter 50 yards for a touchdown, bouncing from a pile up the middle and finding room on the outside.
Not only did Williams set a personal high for rushing yards, but he set a new season standard for Bison backs breaking tackles. Rare was the first Penguin to bring him to the turf with a solo tackle.
“We told ourselves as an offense we wanted to physically dominate these guys and I think we did that,” Williams said.
The season high for carries in a game remains by quarterback Quincy Patterson with 19. Gonnella had 11 attempts against Albany and Towson.
Williams’ biggest hurdle in getting into the lineup had more to do with the playbook. Entz pointed to pass protection responsibilities.
“He’s a load to tackle,” Entz said. “But he has to be able to do things in the pass game. Every day he’s here, he understands the offense that much better.”
On Saturday, he had an offensive line that understood how to push another team back. Sam would have approved.
“I think the Rams have always been physical but this week I thought they stepped it up more than I’ve seen,” Miller said. “We got some stuff rolling now and we can use it and build off it. We ran a lot of power, that’s what this program is built on is power.”