Tenuous footing: 14th-ranked Bison football teams falls to 1-3 in Missouri Valley race

NORMAL, Ill. - This one was for the birds in more than just Illinois State's nickname. North Dakota State saw its chances of making a name for itself in the Missouri Valley Football Conference fly away on a beautiful day in central Illinois.

Illinois State's Ashton Leggett
Illinois State's Ashton Leggett looks for running room as he evades North Dakota State defensive back Marcus Williams on Saturday in Normal.David Proeber / Special to The Forum

NORMAL, Ill. - This one was for the birds in more than just Illinois State's nickname. North Dakota State saw its chances of making a name for itself in the Missouri Valley Football Conference fly away on a beautiful day in central Illinois.

Mistakes and poor run defense were costly and the Redbirds - who came in on an injured flight path - took a

34-24 victory before 10,131 fans at Stambaugh Stadium.

These homecoming games are not treating the Bison well. It was Illinois State's big alumni day, while the Bison had lost their last two homecomings at the Fargodome. The hurt, however, is in the won-lost record.

The Bison, ranked 14th in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll, fell to 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the league.


"It's tough, we have to find a way to win on offense, defense and special teams," said Bison running back D.J. McNorton. "We have to find a way to win."

That's precisely what Illinois State did after coming off a humiliating 59-24 loss to Indiana State last week. A defense that was much maligned played just well enough against NDSU.

As sharp as quarterback Jose Mohler was last week in a win at Youngstown State, he had his troubles against the Redbirds. The sophomore fumbled twice, both deep in ISU territory including one at the 4-yard line, and threw two interceptions

"It's not a day I'm satisfied with," Mohler said. "When you have three turnovers, you're probably going to lose the football game. I have to be more secure with the football."

But he did get the Bison on the doorstep of a chance to win with a 26-yard touchdown pass to receiver Warren Holloway with 8:07 remaining. That made it 27-24 and left it up to the Bison defense to get a stop - something that troubled it all day.

There were a couple of close calls. The Redbirds recovered one of their own fumbles and NDSU defensive lineman Matt Phillips was flagged for facemask after it appeared the Bison had the Redbirds stopped on third-and-9 at their own 33.

"If we come up with a stop, it's a different type of game," said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. "Nonetheless, you have to play with the cards that we were dealt with."

Four plays later, the Redbirds put it away with a 49-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Brown to Ashton Leggett on another third-and-long situation.


"It was a perfectly executed play at the perfect time," Leggett said.

The third down demon that haunted NDSU most of last year has returned the last three games. ISU converted 9 of 19.

"That's real frustrating," said Bison linebacker Chad Willson. "We have to play better 'D' on third down and get off the field."

The Redbirds improved to 4-3 and kept themselves in contention for the conference title at 3-2. They won the turnover battle after mistakes were costly for both teams in the first half with each team converting a mistake into a touchdown. NDSU went up 10-7 late in the first quarter thanks to an alert play by safety John Pike.

ISU receiver Tyrone Walker had the ball popped free by defensive lineman Ryan Drevlow near the sideline by the line of scrimmage. Pike picked up the loose ball and scampered 31 yards to the Redbird 7-yard line.

McNorton scored on the next play.

The Redbirds responded with a 23-yard field goal by Stephen Fetzer. Both defenses, however, clamped down on the ensuing two possessions by each team.

That's when Mohler got loose. Ryan Smith's 13-yard punt return got the Bison in good position at the ISU 48 with 1:44 left in the half.


They only needed 12 seconds. Mohler took a quarterback draw up the middle, made a couple of moves and scored virtually untouched. The 17-10 lead stood at intermission.

An impressive drive to open the third quarter ending with a five-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Matt Younger tied it. An even more impressive march put the Redbirds ahead.

It took ISU just four plays to go 96 yards - after Mohler fumbled on a long scramble - with the big play a 73-yard sprint by running back Erik Smith and it was 24-17 heading into the fourth quarter.

The Redbirds extended the lead to 27-17 on a Fetzer field goal, but NDSU clawed back into it. But unlike last week's comeback victory at Youngstown, it was the Redbirds who made the plays in the closing minutes.

"We stayed with it, we believed in ourselves," said ISU cornerback E.J. Jones.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 9-11 a.m. on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack's NDSU media blog can be found at


Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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