Kolpack: With Lance helping in the booth, true freshman QB sparks Bison to victory
Cam Miller played like the upcoming NFL first round draft pick on key drive in fourth quarter
The award for shortest question by a member of the media on Saturday afternoon went to television sideline reporter Ryan Gellner, who got two words into his halftime statement about the North Dakota State offense before Bison head coach Matt Entz took it from there.
“Sucked in the red zone, OK?” Entz said. “We have to get our asses moving.”
He was referring mainly to the first play of the second quarter when the Bison faced fourth down and inches from the end zone. Running back Dominic Gonnella was stacked for no gain by the interior of the ISU defense.
It took until well into the fourth quarter before NDSU entered the red zone to get a chance at rear-ends-moving redemption. And the guy doing the most moving in the 21-13 win over Illinois State at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome may be the new starting quarterback.
True freshman quarterback Cam Miller directed a 13-play, 84-yard drive that ended with Miller scoring from 6 yards on a scramble that looked like something the kid sitting in the NDSU coaches booth would do. That would be Trey Lance, who hung out next to offensive assistants Tyler Roehl and Randy Hedberg.
Miller was a very West Coast offensive-like 5 of 7 passing for 61 yards and had 11 carries for 57 yards. Better than that, he played like a veteran when the game was on the line, particularly on his touchdown run with 3 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the game. That erased the Redbirds’ one-point deficit.
“It shows a high level of composure for him not to get rattled in that situation,” Entz said.
The situation was this: the Bison had third-and-goal from inside the 1 after freshman running back Jalen Bussey somehow shed three tackles and turned nothing into five yards.
NDSU, however, was called for illegal procedure. The quarterback was not fazed. He dropped back to pass, looked left, center, right and probably could have looked into every section of the dome stands he had so much time.
“They dropped like eight guys into coverage,” Miller said, “and they brought only three and I thought our offensive line did a great job of taking care of those three guys. I was looking at the (receivers) and I just didn’t trust myself with fitting it in there and I trusted my legs.”
His legs took him to the right and he found plenty of room. For the record, the play took nine seconds.
“I think that’s the longest that I’ve sat in the pocket,” Miller said.
It must have pleased Lance, who was in Fargo for his NDSU Pro Day on Friday. Lance wasn’t sitting in the booth eating popcorn, either. He was on the headset with players, including Miller, during the game.
“There were a few drives where he talked to me,” Miller said. “He told me to stay poised.”
Miller paid attention to a lesson in poise last fall with, ironically, Lance’s only college interception. It came against Central Arkansas.
“I’ve never seen somebody so calm and positive after a pick,” Miller said. “After that, I took that in and no matter what, everything is going to be fine.”
Entz, as expected, wasn’t about to crown Miller the next Trey Lance. He said he’ll have to evaluate the game film before making a decision on who will start against North Dakota next Saturday.
But the fact Entz gave the keys to Miller with 11:52 left in the game and the Bison holding a 14-13 lead says volumes. That drive lasted 8:13.
“This is what you dream about, this is why you come and play college football,” Miller said. “I think these coaches have really set me up for that moment today.”
The win helped ease the disappointment of not scoring in the first half when the Bison could have virtually put the game away. A 42-yard pass from quarterback Zeb Noland to Christian Watson reached the Redbird 6-yard line. Miller gained two yards on first-and-goal. Noland was incomplete on second down and Gonnella reached the 1 on third down.
A touchdown there and the game would have been all but over at 21-0. Asking the Redbirds to score three touchdowns this spring would be like asking the Red River to never flood.
Illinois State quarterback Bryce Jefferson was 9 of 26 passing, which was maybe better than his 3 of 8 for 34 yards and an interception in the 2019 quarterfinal game at the dome. That ended with a 9-3 Bison win.
He was on pace for those numbers until a 45-yard pass to Austin Nagel on third-and-9 that reached the Bison 3. The Redbirds scored on Tyler Pennington’s one-yard run and it was 14-13.
It stayed 14-13 thanks to Spencer Waege’s blocked extra point.
That’s when Miller orchestrated NDSU’s best drive of the season. Starting from their own 16-yard line with 11:52 left, ISU had the momentum and the knowledge that it was consistently stopping the Bison most of the game.
Gonnella, however, stalled the surge with a 25-yard run. Miller got six yards on second-and-2 for a first down. On second-and-10, he and Gonnella combined on an 11-yard pass play to the ISU 19 and the Bison were knocking on the door.
“Extremely excited about the composure he had,” Entz said. “We’re excited with his ability to make some plays. He wasn’t afraid to pull the ball down and use his feet. We talked this morning, football is a tough sport, toughness is critical and we saw a young man take some hits today. We just needed a spark and sometimes it’s something as subtle as personnel and a changeup.”