In what had been billed as the top non-conference matchup of the FCS season, the North Dakota State Bison racked up 532 yards en route to a comfortable 40-13 victory over No. 6 Eastern Washington. The Herd dominated EWU in all aspects of the game, thumping the Eagles in a critical matchup.
“It was a true team win today,” head coach Chris Klieman said following the victory. “I was excited. All three phases of the game played well.”
The Bison thoroughly commanded the game from the very beginning. After a Cam Pederson field goal on their opening drive, the Herd fell behind 7-3, but responded with a touchdown and never looked back. Lance Dunn’s 23-yard touchdown gave NDSU a 9-7 advantage, one which they would never relinquish.
The touchdown was the first of three for Dunn who, along with junior Bruce Anderson, had a monstrous performance rushing behind the stout offensive line. Anderson led all running backs with 160 yards and found the end zone once. Dunn wasn’t far behind, with 148 rushing yards to go along with his three scores. In total, the Bison rushed for 375 yards.
After the contest, Dunn deferred all credit to his offensive line. “They played a hell of a game,” Dunn remarked. “I can’t do it without them. I give all credit to the o-line.”
Senior right guard Austin Kuhnert elaborated on the Bison’s aspirations for the game, indicating that NDSU felt confident in their ability to run the ball. “I knew we were going to put up a lot of rushing yards, but not 375,” the Sioux Falls native stated.
Not only did the offensive line excel in run blocking, they also held their own in pass protection, surrendering only one sack. That afforded quarterback Easton Stick ample time throughout the game. Stick played a clean game, completing 13 of his 20 pass attempts for 157 yards.
The superlative play of the offensive line impressed Klieman, who complimented his offensive line and running backs. “It was neat to see. Even without Dillon [Radunz], we played seven guys in there and they did a great job,” Klieman said. “I thought our backs ran extremely hard and really well. I was extremely pleased with the offensive line.”
A glance at the scoreline would have one believe that the Bison were the team with the explosive offense and not EWU. NDSU clinically wore down the Eagles, possessing the ball for more than 42 minutes and running 85 plays, compared to EWU’s 54. The Herd nearly tripled the Eagles’ total number of first downs, moving the chains 31 times to Eastern Washington’s 11.
The Bison’s defense befuddled quarterback Gage Gubrud. As he did in their game against Texas Tech to open the season, Gubrud struggled to find any rhythm with his receivers. The redshirt junior posted the worst completion percentage of his career, connecting on just 10 of his 30 passes. Gubrud, the FCS leader in passing yards a season ago, threw for only 134 yards, 50 of which came one on play.
Strong safety Robbie Grimsley particularly stymied the Eastern Washington signal caller. The junior intercepted him twice in the first half on consecutive drives.
“It’s nice, especially coming after last year,” Grimsley stated. “We really wanted to come out and make some plays this year. The first drive, we were a little hectic, scrambling to get set up. We settled down a little bit once the second quarter rolled around. I think we were able to make some plays and that was the end of that.”
“One thing that we were not going to do was allow (Gubrud) to sit back there and hang onto the football like he did last year,” Klieman said. “This year we said we were going to bring different four-man, five-man, six-man pressures and try to get some hits on him,” he continued. While the Bison only managed one sack of the mobile Gubrud, the linebackers and secondary stifled him in the passing game, forcing him to scramble rather than make throws.
NDSU’s ability to shut down the Eagles’ up-tempo, big play offense was critical to the victory. The Herd limited the high yardage passing plays that Eastern Washington thrives on and stuffed their running game at the point of attack. The Bison limited the Eagles to a paltry 2.9 yards per carry.
Eastern Washington will need to right the ship quickly if they’re to have any hopes of winning the Big Sky conference and earning a playoff berth. Their ineffective offense has sorely missed the presence of Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne, two receivers who’ve moved on to the NFL
Meanwhile, the Bison have a week off before hosting Robert Morris on Sept. 23.
“The open week is coming at a good time for us; we’ve got to get some guys healed up,” Klieman remarked. The big name to heal up will be linebacker Nick DeLuca. The senior injured his knee in practice this week, and did not play Saturday.