On a day where the lights stayed on during pregame introductions, the North Dakota State defense shut the lights out on North Alabama’s offense in a 38-7 victory.
The FCS newcomers showed well in the first half, but key mistakes allowed the Bison to open a gap early before putting away the Lions in the second.
One thing visiting teams in Fargo can’t do is spot the home team points early. That is exactly what happened to North Alabama on just their second drive.
Following a three-and-out, the Lions were forced to punt in the shadow of their own goalpost. The snap went over the head of punter Joe Gurley, and Bison safety James Hendricks recovered the ball at the 3-yard line.
Two plays later, Bruce Anderson pushed into the end zone for his third rushing touchdown of the year.
“You cannot come to this place with this type of crowd and spot them 17 (first half) points,” North Alabama head coach Chris Willis said.
Despite the early hole, the Lions proved that they were ready to move up from Division II. The UNA defense forced a fumble from Lance Dunn to continue to disrupt the NDSU offense.
As good as the Lions’ defense was, the Bison’s was even better. UNA quarterback Christian Lopez was under constant pressure throughout the game.
But still trailing by a single score, UNA looked hungry to knot the game early in the second quarter. The Lions began to knock on the door as Lopez hit Dexter Boykin for an 11-yard gain. Boykin was forced to make the catch one-handed as there was contact between him and his defender. The receiver was harshly called for offensive pass interference, and the ball was moved to midfield.
Aaron Steidl recorded the Bison’s third sack of the day to keep the Lions from kicking a field goal.
The Bison offense finally clicked into gear the following drive to extend the lead. Quarterback Easton Stick connected with Dallas Freeman for 54 yards to the UNA 18-yard line.
“Today, (Freeman) stood out and made some big time plays when we needed them,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman said.
Darrius Shepherd took the pass from Stick on the next play and took care of the rest. The senior who had a single touchdown reception last year dove for the pylon to give the Bison the 14-0 lead.
NDSU looked primed to punch in their third touchdown of the half in the late goings. Faced with third down and five to go, Stick evaded the pass rush and was flushed to his left. In scramble mode, Freeman stayed downfield and found an opening in coverage. Stick hit the open man, and NDSU had first down at the Lions’ 4-yard line.
But three attempts to break the plane of the goal line were unsuccessful, and the Bison were forced to kick a field goal for three points.
That was the story of the Bison offense in the first half, recording just 43 rushing yards.
“I thought we were a little on our heels in the first half offensively,” Klieman said. “That is a credit to (North Alabama).
Stick made it 24-0 in the third, this time doing it with his feet. An eight-yard keeper was enough to get into the end zone to cap off an efficient drive.
North Alabama countered by bringing Chris Weaver in at quarterback. The change allowed for more run-pass options. The Lions moved downfield, but the drive stalled at midfield.
The Bison defense got its reward early in the fourth. Sophomore linebacker Jabril Cox cut under Weaver’s pass and returned the interception for a touchdown. It was the second career pick for Cox.
“He is just so long and so athletic that he broke on the ball right when it came off the quarterback’s hand,” Klieman said on Cox.
The pick-six was the icing on the cake for the NDSU starters. True freshman Trey Lance made his debut for the Bison in the middle of the fourth and acquitted himself well.
Lance hit Kenneth Channelle for his first pass before pulling off a pair of runs. The first gained 10 yards before he flashed his potential on the second. Seeing good coverage downfield, Lance tucked the ball, broke a tackle and dove in from 44 yards out for the score.
UNA tacked on a score late with Weaver hitting Boykin to give the Lions some well-deserved points.
Stick finished the day 10-17 for 162 yards in the air with a touchdown throwing and rushing. Freeman led all receivers with a career-high 4 receptions for 117 yards. Anderson led the Bison rushers with just 56 yards.
The task for the Bison moves to the Blue Hens of Delaware next week for Homecoming. Kickoff at the Fargodome is scheduled for 1 p.m.