Facing off for the first time ever, the North Dakota State Bison defeated the North Carolina A&T Aggies of the Big South Conference, 43 – 3. Since a loss to Western Illinois in 2008, the Bison have now won 14 consecutive games in the annual Trees Bowl game, including a dominating victory over Indiana State last season 44-2. North Carolina A&T, under 5th-year head coach Sam Washington, is a program that went 31-5 over the course of three seasons from 2017 to 2019 with three victories in the Celebration Bowl. Picked to finish near the top of their conference this season, they came in as a quality non-conference opponent for the Bison.
In contrast to last week’s game, NDSU would lose the coin toss, but would still receive the opening kickoff. Preseason All-Conference running back Kobe Johnson quickly gave the Bison solid field position near midfield to start the game on the opening kick. After converting on a 3rd & 10 on a 12-yard completion to Jake Lippe near the Bison sideline, quarterback Cam Miller threw over the middle and connected with senior Zach Mathis in stride for a 40-yard touchdown.
“When Zach’s healthy he’s a pretty dynamic kid.” Head Coach Matt Entz said of Mathis.
“Cam (Miller) put that ball only where Zach can go get it,” Entz continued. “Zach was able to climb the ladder and go get it and score. Great time for Zach in his fifth year now to really start seeing some of the benefits.”
The ensuing possession was the most success the Aggies from Greensboro, North Carolina would have all game. Thanks in large part to Aggie sophomore running back Bhayshul Tuten, who ran for 127 yards on the day, North Carolina A&T drove down to the red zone on the Bison defense. However, the drive would stall thanks to the suffocating Bison defensive line and the Aggies would settle for a 38-yard field goal by Andrew Brown to make it a 7-3 ballgame.
“Really good player,” Senior Dawson Weber said of Tuten. “He ran hard, never stopped his feet, low center of gravity. He wasn’t going to go down by the first, so we had to swarm tackle and we made that a big emphasis at halftime. Wrapping up and getting all 11 (defenders) to the ball.”
Thanks to another quality kick return by Kobe Johnson, the Bison were yet again set up with great field position. In just six plays, the Bison marched straight down the field by leaning heavily on the run game. Capping off the drive was a 6-yard rushing touchdown from redshirt freshman backup quarterback Cole Payton. Payton would also run in the two-point conversion following his third career rushing touchdown.
“I thought he did a great job. Cole is a tremendous athlete. Physical, downhill kid. We’ve got that Q Power, Q Counter down in the red zone.” Entz said of Payton.
“Again, only scratching the surface of what he can do. Coach Hedberg does an outstanding job along with our offensive staff, Coach Roehl included, of bringing that young man along step by step.”
All afternoon long, the Bison defense would swarm the Aggie backfield. On a third down and nine on the first play of the 2nd quarter, senior Spencer Waege strip-sacked Aggie quarterback Zach Yeager and the ball was recovered by fellow defensive lineman Tony Pierce.
“I can’t put it into words,” Entz said of Waege’s performance. “The praise I gave Cordell Volson last year…Spencer Waege’s that type of guy to us. Mr. Bison. Loves his program. Loves his teammates.”
Utilizing superb field position seemed to be a theme of the day for North Dakota State. Just five plays after the turnover, Miller connected with fullback Hunter Luepke over the middle for a 15-yard score extending the lead to 22-3 early in the second frame.
It wouldn’t be long until Luepke would set off the cannons for the second time. Trying to set up a screen pass on a third down and four, senior linebacker James Kaczor was determined to get the football in his hands. Kaczor ripped the ball out of the receiver’s hands at his opponent’s 25-yard line and ran the ball down to the 1-yard line. On the very next play, Cam Miller would hand the ball off to Luepke who walked into the end zone for his second score in less than two minutes of game time.
However, the Bison would not be done making impact plays just yet. Thanks in large part to a tackle for loss and sack on back-to-back plays by linebacker Julian Wlodarczyk and defensive lineman Spencer Waege, the NDSU offense proceeded to go on a 78-yard touchdown drive in just 8 plays. The drive was capped off by running back T.K. Marshall’s first rushing touchdown of the season from 10 yards out. Following Griffin Crosa’s extra point, the Bison lead had ballooned to 36-3, a lead they would take into halftime.
Following a shanked Bison punt early in the 3rd quarter, North Carolina A&T would get solid field position to start a drive. None of that would matter as the Bison defense would come up huge on third down. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jaxon Duttenhefer sacked Aggie quarterback Jalen Fowler, who fumbled the ball on the play. The ball bounced into the hands of senior safety Dawson Weber who took it 79 yards to the house. For the second straight week, a Bison defender found the end zone; this time tying Claudie Miller’s school record in 1925 for longest fumble returned for a touchdown.
“I wasn’t around back then,” Weber laughed. “Big credit to our d-line. I could have walked 79 yards on that one.”
The play allowed Weber a chance at redemption after dropping what was sure to be a pick-six in the first half.
“It was weighing on me a bit,” Weber said of the dropped interception. “The sleep I was going to get tonight would have been a bit less. Big credit to my guys for having trust in me, keeping my head above water and keep being confident.”
The score by Weber would be the last of the game for either squad. Following a Bison missed field goal early in the fourth quarter, North Carolina A&T went on a 15-play drive that killed over eight minutes off the clock but would be cut short by a yard on a fourth down run by Jalen Fowler who came up shy of the sticks. Unfortunately for the Bison defense, they would lose defensive lineman Eli Mostaert to a lower leg injury in the second half. There was no update on Mostaert’s injury in the postgame.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hopefully get more information as we move forward,” Entz said of Mostaert’s injury.
Led by running backs Barika Kpeenu and Owen Johnson to close out the game, the Bison would finish off their second straight 40+ point home win to start the season in front of 16,269 fans at the Fargodome.
The Bison will travel to Tucson, Arizona next Saturday to take on the University of Arizona Wildcats (1-1) of the Pac-12 Conference. The Bison have won six straight games against FBS opponents, most recently against Iowa in 2016. The game can be found on Fox Sports 1 at 10:00 p.m. CT.
“We’re going to do what we do. Practice the way we practice. It’s like every other game. We’re going down there and it’s going to be 100 yards long, 53 1/3 yards wide,” Entz said of preparing for Arizona.
The Bison (2-0) will play their next home game on homecoming, Saturday, October 1, against Youngstown State at 1:00 p.m. in the Fargodome. Student tickets will be available at GoBison.com/Students beginning at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 24th.
Hunter Luepke; 37 all-purpose yards, 2 TD; Spencer Waege; 3 Tackles, 2 Sacks,
1 FF, and Cam Miller 7-12, 102 Yds 2 TDs, led the Bison to their 21st straight regular-season non-conference win.