It took a second half surge, but the North Dakota State Bison topped Illinois State by a score of 20-7 on Saturday. Relying on their running game through rain and eventual snow, NDSU took home the Missouri Valley’s outright title for the third time in history.
The first half was a battle for field position, with punters Jackson Koonce and Redbird Zach Breen featured heavily. The two sides combined for 10 punts in the first two quarters, and, outside of the Bison’s 7:26 drive on their opening possession, neither team held the ball for more than six plays or four minutes at a time.
Quarterback Easton Stick completed both of his two completions on the first drive, connecting with Dallas Freeman and Ty Brooks. Stick finished the game with eight total pass attempts and only 15 yards through the air.
Illinois State struggled to pass the ball with any success either, as neither Jake Kolbe nor Malachi Broadnax completed a pass in the first half. At halftime, the Herd had only 84 yards of offense to the Redbirds’ 68.
Weather conditions were a major factor in the passing games’ poor showing. Midway through the second quarter, rain quickly turned into snow in Normal, Illinois, and the teams left a snow-covered field at halftime. Winds at roughly 30 mph also contributed to each teams’ offensive limitations.
The Bison took control in the second half after Illinois State went three-and-out to begin the third quarter. ISU forced the Herd to punt after three plays, but a roughing the punter penalty on Zackary Mathews gave NDSU a first down.
“I saw the guy come across, and he kind of swiped my foot,” Koonce said afterward. “I swallowed my pride and kind of rolled around for a little bit, see if I could get the penalty. I was happy I did.”
Six plays later, Stick tip-toed the sideline, hardly visible through the snow, for a 10-yard score to put NDSU up 7-0.
The penalty Koonce drew ultimately proved to be a turning point for the Bison. On ISU’s ensuing drive, linebacker Jabril Cox intercepted Kolbe and returned the pick 32 yards to Illinois State’s 25-yard line.
“Jabril’s interception, that kept the momentum on our side, and we got a short field there,” head coach Chris Klieman remarked. The pick was the first of Cox’s collegiate career.
Brooks rushed for 22 yards on the next two plays, and two plays later, Bruce Anderson punched it in from the goal line to add to NDSU’s lead.
Anderson led the Bison with 95 rushing yards and a touchdown. The Ruskin, Florida native was excited to experience a game in the snow for the first time.
“I’m still shivering,” the junior said. “It’s a dream for a Florida kid to play in the snow, so I’m glad I got to experience it. I don’t want to experience it (anymore). I’m good with one game. I’m content with that.”
After two games with only 30 and 33 rushing yards, Anderson admitted to getting discouraged with his play, but a new attitude bolstered him on Saturday. “I’d been kind of getting down on myself lately,” Anderson conceded. “I just figured, ‘Have fun.’ It’s all about having fun. Not a lot of people get to play college football. It’s an experience for me, and I’m just glad I got to play out here with my brothers and have fun.”
The Redbirds attempted to stage a late comeback, but the Bison turned them away. Running back James Robinson’s 11-yard score with 3:21 left in the fourth quarter drew ISU within six.
Outside of Robinson, who carried the ball 17 times for 96 yards, the Bison neutralized the Redbirds’ offense. Kolbe completed only 8 of 22 passes, plagued by his receivers’ drops. After Robinson, Broadnax was ISU’s next leading rusher with 11 yards. Robinson’s partner, Markel Smith was injured in the second quarter and did not return.
Chris Board and Robbie Grimsley both paced the Bison with seven tackles. Aided by the conditions, NDSU held Illinois State to only one third down conversion, and the Redbirds only passed the 50-yard line twice.
NDSU countered with a touchdown of their own on the next drive. Stick broke through for a 56-yard run, but cornerback DraShane Glass forced a fumble from behind. Trailing the play, Anderson slid to recover the fumble, which had slowed down after hitting a chunk of snow, at the 1-yard line. Stick kept it himself on the next play and dove in for the score that put the Bison ahead for good.
The Bison closed the book on the regular season with the victory, completing the year with a 10-1 overall record and a 7-1 record in conference.
“Our guys always (find) a way each Saturday to find a way to get a victory,” Klieman said. “We had one slip-up. In this league — you go 7-1 in this league — and win the outright championship, that’s a heck of a year.”
The victory cemented the Bison’s No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs, as chosen by the selection committee. NDSU is joined by South Dakota State, Western Illinois, Northern Iowa, and South Dakota in representing the Missouri Valley in the field.
The Herd will have a bye week this upcoming Saturday, then will face the victor of Northern Arizona’s home matchup with San Diego on Dec. 2 at 2:30. A new season starts now.