In a five-minute span, the North Dakota State Bison turned their quarterfinal clash with Wofford College on its head.
With 4:44 to play in the first half, the Terriers began lined up to start their drive, looking to respond to Bruce Anderson’s rushing touchdown. Little did they know the crushing sequence that would await.
Halfback Blake Morgan took the handoff and after running right for two yards, was brought down by Caleb Butler, who forced a fumble. Strong safety Robbie Grimsley swooped in to recover the loose ball and returned it 21 yards to the three-yard line. Two plays later, Easton Stick hit Jeff Illies for a score to bring the Herd’s lead to 18 points.
Things got even worse for the Terriers on the ensuing kick return. Brandon Brown returned Cam Pederson’s kickoff, but the redshirt freshman was brought down by Dimitri Williams and lost the football. This time, it was linebacker Jabril Cox in the right place at the right time, and Anderson bulldozed his way into the end zone six plays later.
It was a head-spinning sequence that ultimately doomed the Terriers.
“You’ve got an opportunity to still be in the game, and then just before half, we had a debacle,” Wofford head coach Mike Ayers said. “That kind of put us in a hole that quite frankly didn’t allow us to do some of the thing we would have liked to do.”
Bison head coach Chris Klieman anticipated that the game would come down to the possession battle. “We had to steal some possessions on defense or specials teams, whether it was by a big return or a turnover,” he said. NDSU kept Wofford off the field, as the Terriers managed just north of 24 minutes of possession.
Wofford’s triple option offense flopped in the second half, simply unable to escape the grave into which they had dug themselves. The Terriers posted only 39 rushing yards in the second half, having to abandon the run and attempt to take shots in the passing game.
“During the game we tried to give different looks to the offense so they could run the ball one way or another. We did a good job of it,” Cox explained.
Part of the Terriers’ second half game plan was a result of the fact that the Bison defense was unrelenting. “I thought they did a nice job of changing up their defense,” Ayers remarked. “They had a great plan. When they felt like we would be in a pass scenario, they blitzed the gaps and created some problems for us.”
The Herd limited Wofford to 134 rushing yards, a departure from their average of 254 per game and a stark contrast to the 291 they rolled up against Furman a week ago.
Central to this success were Cox and Grimsley. The duo combined for nine tackles and their fumble recoveries proved to be the ultimate dagger.
“They fly to the ball really well. They’ve got great team speed. When you’ve got good players and a good scheme, you’re a pretty good team,” Wofford quarterback Brandon Goodson commented.
Goodson experienced Cox’s speed first hand. The Kansas City, Missouri product tallied two quarterback hurries on the Terriers’ passer, in the first and third quarter. His third quarter hurry was followed up by a six yard tackle for loss after Pederson’s blocked field goal attempt gave Wofford a spark. Thanks to Cox, the drive ended in a three and out.
“We put him to the field. He’s a long athletic guy that can really run, and he is hard to cut down,” Klieman said of Cox. “I thought he was really good.”
The two were the focal points of a tremendous effort on the part of the Bison. NDSU limited the Terriers to 177 yards, half of their average of their average of 361.8 per game prior. Wofford’s ten points matched a season low, which happened in their final regular season game against FBS South Carolina.
Essential to the Herd’s dominance was their ability to control the pace and direction of the game, as Grimsley explained afterwards. “Once we got used to (the triple option) we were kind of able to dictate the speed of the game a little bit, and that helps when you try to make open field tackles. You can slow them down and help guys rally to the ball.”
Above all, NDSU played exceptional team defense, with 19 players recording at least one tackle to silence an offense that had averaged 27 points per game. “Everybody did their part,” Cox elaborated. “I know a lot of times the ball is not going to come to you, but if you do you part, everything will come to fruition.”
NDSU will have their work cut out for them on the defensive side of the ball once more in next weekend’s semifinal against Sam Houston State’s spread offense, which averages 45.6 points per game.