On an afternoon dedicated to a brutal sport, Saturday’s clash between North Dakota State and Southern Illinois began with hugs, 24 of them, to be exact. The embraces were between NDSU head coach Chris Klieman and each of the Bison’s 24 graduating seniors.
A not-so-sold-out Fargodome crowd came out to pay homage to the senior class, who played in their final regular season home game. The seniors returned the favor and then some, keying the Bison’s 65-17 trouncing of the Salukis.
After each senior, from Jalen Allison to Jaaylan Wimbush, ran out of the tunnel one-by-one, the game couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for NDSU. Je’Quan Burton returned the opening kickoff 100 yards, and the Bison were immediately behind the eight ball.
It didn’t stay that way for very long, however. When the Bison needed to steel themselves — which they haven’t had to do very often this year — their seniors took over.
The comeback, if reversing a seven-point deficit can be called such, began with signal-caller Easton Stick. The Omaha, Nebraska product went to the well and hit Darrius Shepherd with a perfectly arced back-shoulder pass. Three plays later, junior Ty Brooks took a handoff 36 yards to tie the game. With its seniors at the helm, the Herd righted the ship in a minute and 44 seconds.
With the score knotted at 14, Stick linked up with a fellow senior Nate Jensen to break the deadlock with a 60-yard strike. It was Jensen’s second touchdown of the season. The tight end finished with a pair of receptions for 78 yards.
When the Bison take a lead, they seldom lose it. That was true again Saturday, thanks to the Bison’s senior leadership on defense.
Dan Marlette and Greg Menard teamed up to open the floodgates. Marlette drilled Burton three yards behind the line of scrimmage to force a fumble, which Menard then recovered. Right outside the red zone, Stick linked up with Ben Ellefson for a 22-yard score on the next play. In the span of 11 seconds, the NDSU seniors doubled the lead.
The game had started like a dream for the Salukis, but down 14, it quickly turned into a nightmare. Once again, a Bison senior was menacing SIU — specifically Salukis’ quarterback Matt DeSomer.
Robbie Grimsley picked off DeSomer on a deep shot down the sideline. The safety made an athletic play to fly to the ball, all the while narrowly tapping a foot inbounds. Grimsley’s second interception came much more easily. DeSomer overthrew Nigel Kilby down the middle of the field, and the ball settled into Grimsley’s hands.
There was one more hug to be shared between coach and player on Saturday. It came at the onset of the fourth quarter, when Stick was lifted for Holden Hotchkiss. Stick trotted off the field to a symphony of applause from what was left of the crowd of 18,008 and hugged the coach who always speaks so highly of him.
“I think he’s the best player in the FCS. I’ve said that for a while,” Klieman remarked. Stick completed 16 of 21 passes for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns, to the tune of a 234.6 passer efficiency rating.
In the end, it was fitting that a group of seniors that has won 50 games and two national championships since 2015 was sent off in dominating fashion. NDSU set school marks in points scored (65) and total yards (663) piled up against a Missouri Valley opponent, a testament to the sweat equity the group of 24 have invested in the program.
To quantify the impact these 24 individuals have had on Bison football, look no further than Saturday’s box score. Jensen, Darrius Shepherd, Dallas Freeman and Bruce Anderson combined for 11 catches for 208 receiving yards and three scores. Anderson added 68 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns as well. Defensively, the seniors contributed 27 tackles, three-and-a-half of which were for loss, one sack and three turnovers.
Those numbers could have been even higher had Allison and Lance Dunn not been out with injuries. That’s to say nothing of Luke Bacon, Colin Conner and Tanner Volson, the three senior anchors who started on the offensive line as well.
With the conference title wrapped up last weekend, the win Saturday finished off the second undefeated season in NDSU’s FCS era. “We had a senior meeting before the season, and one of our goals was to go undefeated,” Grimsley commented.
“We work our tails off in the offseason, and a lot of people don’t see that,” Anderson added. “We make a lot of sacrifices. Just to see our goals accomplished is amazing.”
“We like to make sure what’s in front of us stays in front of us,” the running back said. Between now and January, all that’s in front of the Bison is four games to immortality.