In the gauntlet that is the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the path to victory is simple. You bring your best, or you get hit over the head with a rock.
The North Dakota State Bison were hit by the rock on Saturday inside Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota.
It was a game where the rock, the Dakota Marker, was up for grabs. South Dakota State simply was the better team on the afternoon. The Jacks were in control from the first drive and won 33-21 to keep the Marker in Brookings for another year.
“We didn’t execute today,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman said. “We had some opportunities where we couldn’t get off the field on defense and, obviously when you have the turnover bug, and especially on short fields to that good of an offense, bad things are going to happen.”
The Jacks’ offense was in sync early, executing from the get-go. Taryn Christion went 5 for 5 for 75 yards as SDSU marched down the field after the opening kickoff. With just 3:44 run off the clock, Jacob Brown hauled in Christion’s first touchdown pass of the day.
The Bison offense finally got something going on their second drive of the game, but it would set the tone for the afternoon. Ty Brooks took the first play 88-yards to the house, but a holding penalty took the score off the board.
NDSU recovered as Stick found high gear. Key completions to R.J. Urzendowski and Connor Wentz, along with a pair of rushes himself, put the Bison in the red zone. The drive was capped off with a 4-yard strike to the tight end Wentz, his third touchdown of the year.
The Bison defense found a way to stifle the high-powered Jacks offense. SDSU had just 21 yards rushing in the first half. Other than giving up a field goal, it looked like the Bison were going into the locker room down 10-7.
Then the turnover bug took its first bite. Stick looked long for Urzendowski, but the pair were not on the same page as the receiver broke upfield. Instead, the ball landed in the hands of Jordan Brown, and the Jacks had time to strike.
Any momentum the NDSU defense created was quickly taken away by the big tight end Dallas Goedert. Consecutive receptions of 22 and 25-yards lead to Christion’s 1-yard rush near the end of the half.
“He is the best tight end in FCS and probably one of the best in FBS too. He is a great player,” Klieman said about Goedert.
NDSU came out of the locker room flying. Stick found Darrius Shepherd on a third-and-18 to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Ty Brooks caught his first touchdown reception on a 24-yard play. NDSU was back in business down 14-17.
The defense did its part, stopping a pair of Jacks runs around midfield to get a turnover on downs.
But the Jacks would get the ball right back. Stick took off on a run and was hit by Kellen Soulek. The ball came free and was recovered by the Jacks’ Alex Romenesko.
Mikey Daniel punched the ball in from five-yards out, and the Jacks had all the momentum on their side.
It got better for the home team on the very next drive. Stick was under pressure and launched a pass that was out of pure hope. Once again, it landed in the hands of a Jackrabbit defender.
NDSU would escape with only giving up a field goal, but the damage was done. The Bison would need a large amount of luck to get back into the 27-14 game.
It seemed like they might get it, as Adam Anderson muffed a punt and Jaylaan Wimbush fell on it. The Bison took over at the SDSU 14.
Two plays later, Stick rushed in from 11 yards out, and it was back to a one score game.
Then Christion and the Jacks offense took over. Brady Mengarelli and Isaac Wallace found room in the run game, and Christion would throw two daggers into the hearts of Bison fans. The first came on fourth-and-4, a 14-yard completion to Jake Wieneke to keep the drive alive. The next play was to Goedert, and the tight end needed just one arm to haul in the touchdown catch.
The 11-play, 6:41 drive left little time for the Bison to get back two scores. And, as they did in important moments on the afternoon, the Bison turned the ball over.
Shepherd coughed the ball up as the Bison were driving. SDSU took the opportunity to take more time off the clock. With less than two minutes left, Stick launched a desperation pass that was intercepted.
It was the first time in his NDSU career Stick had three interceptions in a game. It was the first time NDSU as a team was picked off three times since the 2015 FCS National Championship game against Jacksonville State. Carson Wentz threw two that day; Stick added one.
At the end of the day, NDSU was held to 108 yards rushing and 229 passing. SDSU meanwhile ran for 144 and passed for another 329. Despite the troubles the Bison had on the afternoon, Klieman was not too worried postgame.
“It is one game; it’s a big game because it’s the Marker game,” Klieman said. “But by no means is our season all of a sudden in jeopardy. All of our goals, everything we have, is in front of us.”
And Klieman is right. Saturday was brutal at the top of the Missouri Valley. Both Illinois State and South Dakota lost and dropped to 4-2 in the Valley. Northern Iowa and SDSU won to join the 4-2 club, one game behind the Bison at 5-1.
With a win at home against a Coyote team that is in a skid, NDSU will wrap up at least a share of the Valley crown. NDSU hosts USD 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 in the Fargodome.