North Dakota State athletics has a rich history. About 10 minutes of the halftime during NDSU’s Homecoming against Southern Illinois was spent recognizing past athletes for their accomplishments.
That list of success was long enough to lull someone to sleep. It was almost as boring as NDSU’s (6-0, 2-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) style of play Saturday at the Fargodome.
On their way to a 30th-consecutive win, the Bison ran for 252 yards and three touchdowns against the Salukis (5-2, 2-1). NDSU grinded out the 38-10 MVFC win by doing the little things right, not necessarily with a big play.
“’Just worry about playing the next play’ was our theme of the week,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said. “If we did that, we thought we would have a game plan good enough to win.”
NDSU’s veteran presence is important here. Past lessons learned from success can be given to the underclassmen of the team.
Even against a top-15 team in the Football Championship Subdivision, the inexperienced Bison made some of the most pivotal plays of the game.
Junior backup tight end Luke Albers wrangled in his first FCS TD catch to give the Bison a 14-point lead in the third quarter after six-year senior Kevin Vaadeland, who had led the team in receptions, went down with a shoulder injury.
“We have a man down, man up mentality around here,” Albers said. “It was my turn to make the play.”
Sophomore Chase Morlock scored a 48-yard TD run to give NDSU the final score of the contest.
And maybe most important, young-gun quarterback Carson Wentz found his stride in the second half after completing only one pass in the first half. He connected on seven of his 13 passes and threw for two touchdowns while running for one.
Young players stepping up is why NDSU is capable of the rich sports tradition.
Senior Trevor Gebhart, who had only caught 2 other TDs in his career, stepped up with a career-long 75-yard touchdown catch when the two leading receivers, Vaadeland and Zach Vraa, were banged up.
“I couldn’t be more proud for a guy who’s been around for a long time,” Klieman said of Gebhart. “He finally had some opportunities. What a big play for him.”
Probably the most important lesson the young players can take away from this year’s team is how to play well in the fourth quarter. The Bison scored three touchdowns in the second half despite SIU only allowing one second-half TD in their previous six games.
“We just wanted to give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter,” SIU head coach Dale Lennon said. “We just weren’t strong enough to do it. We got schooled.”
NDSU graduated 24 seniors from a 2013 team that went 15-0 on its way to a third-straight FCS championship.
But thanks to the young players stepping up this year, NDSU has found a way to keep that success rolling.
“We knew we were going to have adversity,” Klieman said. “We just play so extremely hard. It’s not always perfect, but they play hard.”
That tradition relies on the strength of the defense. The Bison limited the Salukis to 125 yards in the second half.
“They hang their hat on their defense because it is that good,” Lennon said. “That’s why defense wins championships. Their defense is that good and their offense is good enough that if you hang in there they’ll find ways to move the ball on you.”
In fact, even SIU can learn lessons from playing a team like NDSU because it executes that well, Lennon said.
He said when fans talk about NDSU and its past, the word “dynasty” needs to be included.
“It’s something North Dakota State should be proud of, especially with the history here,” Lennon said of NDSU’s 30-game win streak. “I hope people don’t take this for granted because this is truly special.”