McFeely: Bison let winnable FBS game slip away against Arizona
Even with uncharacteristic mistakes, NDSU had Wildcats right where it wanted them but couldn't finish job
TUCSON — Third-and 2-from the Arizona 23-yard line. North Dakota State leading 28-24 in the fourth quarter. Two yards. How much would you have bet NDSU was going to get those two yards and nail the casket shut on Arizona?
A week's salary? A month's salary? A year's salary?
The Bison, after all, were gashing the Wildcats defense in the second half. Running at will with Hunter Luepke, TaMerik Williams, Dom Gonnella and Kobe Johnson. One run after another for big yards.
Arizona's defense was so done, you probably couldn't have stuck a fork in it because it was roasted so thoroughly.
Yet we are here Sunday morning talking about a 31-28 loss to Arizona, a defeat surprising because the Bison offense was dominating so decisively in the fourth quarter it seemed unthinkable NDSU was going to lose when it faced third and 2 from the Arizona 23 with a 28-24 lead.
There's always one of those after a game like this, right?
A handoff to Luepke went for no gain to make it fourth and 2. Bison head coach Matt Entz kept his offense on the field, having decided to go for the first down. It was the right call. And offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl made the correct play call. After a timeout, wildcat quarterback Cole Payton ran left and was stopped a yard short.
“When I saw 15 (Payton) in the game, they’d been running with him the whole game," said Arizona linebacker Jerry Roberts, who had nine tackles and the fumble recovery. "So I knew it was going to be quarterback power."
Arizona ball. There was 8:59 left. Suddenly it felt like NDSU's defense, mostly without answers for uber-talented Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura all night, would have to work some magic to save the day. Talk about a mood swing.
NDSU couldn't do it. Arizona went 78 yards down the field in 10 plays and just 4 minutes, 6 seconds. Too easy. Too little resistance from the Bison defense. Arizona 31, Bison 28.
There was still 4:53 left. Time for a comeback victory. But after a short run by Luepke, a loss by Williams and an odd screen to Braylon Henderson for 2 yards, the Bison punted. Arizona ran out the clock and a prime chance at NDSU's seventh straight victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent was gone.
When asked if it felt like the Bison let an FBS win slip through their hands, safety Michael Tutsie couldn't deny it.
"I'd be lying if I said no. I mean, we came here to win. We came expecting to win," he said. "We knew it was gonna be a dogfight. We didn't expect to come here and do anything crazy, but we expect to come in and do what we do. Yeah, it felt like it slipped away."
Here's the weird thing about this NDSU loss: The FCS Bison were favored by three points to win over a Pac-12 team. They lost by three, and it feels like they made enough mistakes that they'll be kicking themselves for weeks.
The Bison established early momentum on their first drive, getting a quick first down and nearing another. Then a false start penalty helped kill that drive.
With the game tied at 7-7 and NDSU rumbling in for the go-ahead touchdown, quarterback Cam Miller had a crushing fumble inside Arizona's 10-yard line while being sacked. The Wildcats recovered and scored on the ensuing drive for a 14-7 lead.
Leading 21-17 in the third quarter, NDSU's defense pressured Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura into throwing away the ball on third down. It looked like the Wildcats would have to punt. Instead, the Bison's Will Mostaert was flagged for a facemask penalty to give Arizona a free first down.
Later on that same drive, de Laura connected on a 23-yard pass to Dorian Singer on third and 13 to keep Arizona's offense on the field. The Wildcats scored to take a 24-21 lead.
It was all so uncharacteristic of NDSU, normally a disciplined and tight operation.
Arizona, on the other hand, played the cleaner game. One penalty. Zero turnovers.
"It comes down to, we weren't very good on third down on either side of the football," Entz said. "That series in the third quarter where we had a penalty on a third down that we gave up a long third and (13). Critical mistakes."
And yet all the Bison needed was two measly yards. They couldn't get it on two tries.
And a victory over an FBS team — another victory over an FBS team — slid away. It can't be viewed any other way.