I actually started writing this column before the game was over to try to console fans as if North Dakota State had lost on Saturday. After NDSU was down four points and had commited 11 penalties, I didn’t think the Bison were going to finish with the win.
The No. 2-seeded Bison proved me dead wrong and pulled out a last-minute 27-24 win against Missouri Valley Football Conference rival South Dakota State in the second round of the FCS playoffs in the Fargodome in sloppy fashion.
But like any of the Bison coaches or players will say, all that matters is the end result.
Down by four points with three minutes left on their own 24-yard line, the Bison (12-1) compiled an eight play, 76-yard drive that concluded with a 12-yard touchdown pass to freshman RJ Urzendowski in the back corner of the endzone.
After the Jackrabbits (9-5) took the lead with about 3 minutes left, quarterback Carson Wentz showed composure in the Bison’s final drive.
“It was bad down the stretch there, and then they scored,” Wentz said. “We got to the other end (of the field) and we said ‘Hey, we have to rally the troops and get this done.’ RJ’s touchdown was huge.”
Even the game for the referees was messy. Three flags were picked up that easily could have altered the game.
Whether the officials were having an off day or not, NDSU’s 110 yards lost in penalties is tough to overcome. The Bison were about to beat themselves.
“Fortunately we were able to overcome them at the end,” Wentz said of his team’s mishaps. “That’s definitely something we’ve got to clean up this week.”
NDSU simply commited uncharacteristic mental lapses. On SDSU’s first scoring drive, the Bison were called for 25 yards worth of penalties. The drive ended with SDSU exposing NDSU’s weak spots and scoring off of a 17-yard touchdown Zach Zenner run.
SDSU’s Je Ryan Butler bolted for an 80-yard punt return, but a yellow flag was thrown down during the play. Naturally, chasing players eased up at the sight of the flag as Butler was caught at NDSU’s own 11.
But the flag was picked up, meaning the return would stand.
Early in the second quarter, the Bison offense gained some traction with a first down and managed to get into a manageable third down.
Then Jesse Hinz committed an illegal snap.
Then Trevor Gebhart got caught for a false start.
NDSU went from a 3rd and 5 to a 3rd and 15. After a failed pass, the Bison were forced to punt.
But then the Jackrabbits reciprocated a few possessions later when Wentz threw a tipped pass that was intercepted, but SDSU was called for pass interference away from the ball. This kept the stuttering NDSU drive alive enough for Adam Keller to get in range and knock through a 42-yard field goal.
SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier even said one of the most key moments of the game was when his team was called for a false start two plays before kicking a field goal to take the lead.
If that penalty hadn’t set them back and SDSU had gotten a touchdown out of the drive, things would’ve been different.
“We had some calls go our way,” Stiegelmeier said. “We played hard and like it was our last game.”
As the Jackrabbits drove back after NDSU retook the lead – which started with a kickoff out of bounds – CJ Smith was called for pass interference to basically let SDSU start in Bison territory.
“Those things we have to get cleaned up,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said. “But I’m not going to change the way we do things in the secondary. We’re a physical, get-after-you, get-up-in-your-face secondary.”
And on what would have been the play of the game, the Jackrabbits made a mess at the line to give Zenner a chance to fall forward for a first down.
It would have been the pivotal play if NDSU hadn’t secured the win by the end.
“That was a good football game,” Sumner said. “It’s just two teams that battled hard. It’s tough to lose those types of games when you leave it all out on the field.”
Mistakes were made, fouls were called, fans were upset and refs were, at times, confused.
The Bison just had the final trump card to pull at the end.
“My hat’s off to our guys for finding a way. The Fargodome is pretty special,” Klieman said. “We survived and advanced.”