PHOTO BY JOHN SWANSON | THE SPECTRUM
The North Dakota State Bison moved to the top of the Missouri Valley Football Conference with a 24-12 victory over No. 10 Western Illinois, Saturday.
The Bison defense smothered the dangerous Leatherneck offense to keep the game close as the offense had a less than perfect day.
With the game tied 3-3 in the first quarter, Easton Stick threw his first interception of the season. The redshirt junior was hit as he threw, and the ball fluttered into the hands of Quentin Moon. Moon returned the ball to the end zone to give WIU the lead.
Two plays later, Stick was picked off again. This time, the pass was underthrown to a streaking Darrius Shepherd. Justin Fitzpatrick cut under the route to make the catch.
While the offense was failing to find a second gear, the defense was flying.
“We had to get some pressure on McGuire,” head coach Chris Klieman said. “It is hard to get pressure on him.”
And get pressure on McGuire they did. Following the interception, Jared Tuzka doomed the Leathernecks to a three-and-out with a third down sack of McGuire.
The offense was finally able to get out of second gear, only to get stuck in third on the next drive. The Bison were run heavy as they methodically marched down the field. NDSU attempted just three passes on the 15-play drive. But the Bison were stuffed on fourth-and-short from the WIU 9-yard line.
Then the Bison offense was back. Stick found R.J. Urzendowski one-on-one on the outside and lofted a 58-yard pass to the senior.
Western Illinois responded, driving back down the field. The drive was aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Dom Davis after the Bison cornerback crunched Steve McShane and stood over him while celebrating.
Emerging defensive stars responded, as Cole Kracz and Jabril Cox tallied back-to-back sacks. WIU had to settle for a field goal that kicker Nathan Erickson knocked through from 52 yards.
The Bison offense continued to click in the second half, this time on Stick’s legs. The quarterback rushed for 18 yards to set up the Bison near the goal line. The Leatherneck held on for two plays, but Stick managed to squeeze in on the quarterback sneak.
Stick would add to his touchdown total on the next drive. The quarterback improvised and bounced off a defender into the end zone from 8 yards out.
In the third quarter, Stick went 5 for 5 for 60 yards passing. He added four rushes for 52 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It was a nearly perfect quarter; the only critique is that he took a couple of shots while running.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity or two to get down or avoid a hit, but I’m playing football and there was an opportunity to get a couple extra yards,” Stick said.
“I know what kind of tough kid he is, and he followed another guy that didn’t slide very much, either,” Klieman said.
For the rest of the game, it was all defense.
Western Illinois came in with an offense posting 41 points a game. The Bison limited the Leathernecks to just 12. Just once were the Leathernecks able to spring a big play, a 45-yard pass to Jaelon Acklin in the fourth quarter. The catch led to a big scoring opportunity for WIU.
The Bison defense stood tall, forcing a pair of incomplete passes on third and fourth-and-goal.
Tre Dempsey capped off the terrific team defense with an interception on the Leathernecks’ final drive.
In all, NDSU gave up just 216 yards, including 31 on the ground. The defense got to McGuire for five sacks.
NDSU improved to 7-0, including 4-0 in the Valley. The Bison remain the only undefeated team in the conference after South Dakota fell to Illinois State. Both of those teams are at 3-1 in the Valley and have not yet faced the Bison.
The other 3-1 team in the Valley is Northern Iowa, who make the trip to Fargo next weekend.
“It is a tough league and there are no easy games,” Klieman said. That will be true as the Panthers will likely become the third straight ranked opponent in a row for the Bison.