In their first Missouri Valley Conference game away from the Fargodome this season, the North Dakota State Bison shut out the Indiana State Sycamores 52-0. The Herd entered the second quarter with only a 7-0 lead, but two touchdowns in the second and three in the third launched the Bison to a conference triumph.
Once again, quarterback Easton Stick’s inspired play led the Bison’s electrifying offense. The junior from Omaha, Nebraska completed 18 of his 23 pass attempts for 191 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Adding to the challenge Stick faced were windy conditions at ISU’s Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute, Indiana. In spite of the unfavorable weather, Stick completed his passes with precision.
Connor Wentz opened the scoring for the Bison, catching his first touchdown of the season in the first quarter on Stick’s 5-yard pass. Wentz was targeted in the end zone again in the second quarter, hauling in a 4-yard score. The senior tight end caught three passes for 36 yards in the contest.
The Bison grabbed control of the game on the kickoff following Wentz’s second score. Aaron Mercadel forced a fumble on Rontrez Morgan, which was recovered by Jaaylan Wimbush. The fumble was the first of six turnovers on the day for the Sycamores. The Bison gained possession at the 18-yard line and capitalized on the short field with Lance Dunn’s 1-yard touchdown run six plays later.
Wimbush had a hand in another Indiana State fumble on the ensuing drive. The junior cornerback sacked Cade Sparks and forced a fumble, which defensive end Stanley Jones quickly pounced on. Pederson kicked a 36-yard field goal following the turnover, which gave the Bison a 24-0 advantage.
NDSU threatened for more points before halftime, but Bruce Anderson’s would be touchdown carry was halted, and the Sycamores were able to force and recover his fumble. As part of a reoccurring theme, ISU could not control the ball. James Hendricks, a quarterback-turned-safety, intercepted Sparks’ deep ball intended for wide receiver Bob Pugh before halftime.
“The last few weeks, we’ve scored quite a bit of points,” Stick commented after the game. “The thing that helps is when your defense is taking the ball away and you’re getting short fields. From there we’re just trying to get it in the end zone.”
The Bison put the game out of reach with two consecutive scoring drives to jump out to a 38-0 lead. On the opening possession of the second half, Stick connected with wide receiver Dallas Freeman on a 14-yard pass to cap a three-play drive. The touchdown was the first of Freeman’s Bison career, one which has been set back by a multitude of injuries.
The Herd used two more turnovers later in the third quarter to add to their already indomitable lead. Jalen Allison picked off Sparks, which eventually led to an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Ellefson.
Sparks threw his third interception of the afternoon three plays into ISU’s next drive. Yet another turnover led to his removal from the game. Tre Dempsey returned the interception to the Sycamores’ 33-yard line, setting the Bison up with another short field. Adam Cofield joined Freeman by scoring his first touchdown as a Bison, the final dagger in a painful game for ISU.
Wimbush took pride in the shutout, an accomplishment every member of NDSU’s defense strives for in each game. “We pride ourselves on dominating for four quarters, and that’s what we did today,” the St. Petersburg, Florida native remarked.
Still, Wimbush believes the NDSU defense, the top ranked in the FCS and one that has not given up more than one touchdown in a game, still has room for improvement. “We’re playing at a good level right now,” Wimbush said. “I’d say good because there are still some mistakes that we’ve got to clean up. There’s always room to get better.”
Head coach Chris Klieman is happy with the Bison’s current position atop the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but both he and his players are aware of the daunting schedule that lies before them.
“I told the guys I was pleased with everything, every phase of the game,” Klieman said. “Now we’ve got to move on to bigger and tougher things.”
All of the Bison’s remaining six opponents were ranked in the top 25 of the FCS Coaches’ Poll entering Saturday’s action, and four held spots in the top 10. The Bison will face Youngstown State this upcoming Saturday in another road test.
“The Valley is really good, and really good this year,” Stick said after the victory. “It’s going to be a one week season each week, and we’re going to have to treat it that way.”
The Penguins were defeated on a last second field goal this past Saturday against South Dakota. The FCS runners-up from a season ago will figure to be NDSU’s most challenging opponent to date.
“We’re really pleased that we’re 5-0,” Klieman said. “We know what’s in front of us. We know it’s going to be a gauntlet. It’s all just going to go one game at a time, one week at a time, and we’re excited for the challenge.”
The Bison have shown the subdivision what they are capable of. Now it’s time to do it against the most grueling schedule in the nation.