North Dakota State made a resounding statement of intent on the third play of their authoritative 28-14 win over Illinois State. Backed up in third-and-7 against the country’s best scoring defense, the Bison rolled the dice. In the shotgun, quarterback Easton Stick fielded the snap, took a three-step drop and targeted a familiar face. Stick floated a pass to wide receiver Darrius Shepherd down the seam, who raced away for a 55-yard gain. Three plays later, the Bison had a seven-point lead.
Six minutes later, the duo had Bison fans experiencing déjà-vu. Stick linked up with Shepherd yet again, this time breaking toward the sideline for a 44-yard pickup. With two deep passes, it was clear the Bison were taking a no-holds-barred approach against one of the top defenses in the nation.
“It was the same play we ran against James Madison in the championship game,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman remarked. The corner route on that day went for 50 yards and was inevitably the game-winning score.
The end result was a massive 14-point victory over the then No. 7 squad in the nation. NDSU’s offense ravaged a unit that in no way, shape or form looked the imposing behemoth they’d been made out to be. Save for two late scores, the Bison defense manhandled a feckless offense for a dominant win.
As was the case against South Dakota State, Shepherd was once again at the center of all the action for the Herd. Targeted eight times, the senior reeled in 6 catches for 126 yards, a career best. Given his recent string of strong outings, Shepherd’s receiving numbers were hardly shocking. Where Shepherd shined was in the return game, as he took two punts for 103 yards.
Special teams was an area in dire need of improvement heading in to the season. Shepherd’s performance is demonstrative of the extent to which the Bison have improved in that area, and it’s where he was his most electrifying on Saturday.
Not once in 2017 did the Bison return a kick more than 31 yards. Shepherd accomplished that twice on Saturday. At the end of the first quarter, the Blue Springs, Missouri product returned a punt 34 yards, setting the Bison up near midfield at their own 47-yard line. In the third quarter, the playmaker ripped off another impressive punt return, weaving through the Redbirds’ defense for a 69-yard return. That return put the Bison in the red zone, and on both occasions NDSU scored a touchdown.
“He’s as good of a skill player (as there is) in the FCS. I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Klieman stated. “He continues to make the impact plays at the critical times.”
A veteran pairing, Stick and Shepherd have showcased a practically telepathic connection this season. Always a preferred target, Shepherd has elevated his play this season. Stick has consistently delivered accurate passes in a position for Shepherd to gain yards after the catch. With excellent field vision, Shepherd always finds an opening in the defense, and Stick delivers.
Through seven games, Shepherd is putting together his finest season in the green and yellow. He’s already tallied 28 receptions for 512 yards, both of which are approaching last year’s 14-game marks. He ranks No. 4 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in receiving yards. Shepherd’s five scores in 2018 match his totals from both his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
The biggest leap for Shepherd has been in his yards per catch and yards per game. His 18.3 yards per reception is a nearly five-yard increase from last year, while 73.1 yards per game nearly doubles his rate from 2017.
Amazingly, Shepherd is posting his best season as a Bison while overcoming personal difficulties. His father passed away in August.
“It’s fun to get out here on Saturdays and play with my brothers and get my mind away from things,” the slot receiver commented. “This is my family right here. It’s always fun going to war.” Shepherd added that his teammates have helped brighten his day every day.
No one is more aware of how high character of an individual Shepherd is than the man tasked with feeding him the football. “He’s just a special person, and everyone in that locker room would attest to it,” Stick said. “Anybody would do anything for him because he consistently shows he’d do anything for anybody.”
On Saturday and throughout the season, Shepherd has done it all for the Bison. No longer — at least among Bison fans — can he not get enough credit. The soft-spoken and unassuming senior is going out with a bang.