The North Dakota State Bison overcame a rocky first half to top the Northern Iowa Panthers 30-14.
Mistakes came in twos for the Bison in the first half. Quarterback Easton Stick threw two interceptions and kicker Cam Pedersen had two of his field goal attempts blocked. While NDSU’s offense could not string together a scoring drive, though, the defense kept the Bison above water.
Midway through the first quarter, linebacker Nick DeLuca exploded through a hole in the middle of the offensive line and leveled quarterback Eli Dunne, forcing a fumble. Levi Jordheim recovered the fumble at UNI’s 38-yard line, but the drive resulted in the second of Pedersen’s blocked attempts.
“I knew we could get after him. Coach Entz really dialed up some blitzes. I didn’t think they could block DeLuca, let’s be honest,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman remarked after the win. “Without the ability to scramble and run with the quarterback, we were just going to blitz and tee off.”
Northern Iowa took a seven-point lead when Dunne found Daurice Fountain in the back of the end zone. Elijah Campbell set up the score with his second interception of Stick.
It looked as if NDSU would go into the locker room without cracking the scoreboard, but Robbie Grimsley took an interception back for six with four minutes left in the half, giving the Bison a much needed lift.
The two sides traded three-and-outs before halftime, leaving the game knotted at seven apiece. The Herd managed just 28 yards on 16 carries, clearly missing Lance Dunn’s burst and elusiveness. Stick completed a paltry 4 of 15 passes for only 66 yards as the Bison could not gain any traction offensively. The Panthers’ offense was also held in check, gaining only 70 yards in the defensive battle.
The Bison seized momentum in the second half, finding the end zone on an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Running back Ty Brooks, returning after missing five games due to a hamstring ailment, bounced a zone run play to the outside for a 22-yard touchdown, his third of the season. Brooks’ touchdown gave the Bison a lead they would never relinquish.
DeLuca and Jordheim combined for another sack and fumble of Dunne. DeLuca dropped Dunne and Jordheim scooped up the loose ball at the threshold of the red zone. The Bison capitalized on the field position this time, with Pedersen splitting the uprights to add to the Bison’s lead.
DeLuca finished the game as NDSU’s leading tackler, recording seven stops in the victory to go along with 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.
“He made some big plays when we needed the big play to be made, and that’s the sign of an All-American,” Klieman said of DeLuca.
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley could do nothing but tip his hat to DeLuca and teammate Jarrod Tuszka, calling the duo the two best linebackers in the conference.
The turnover woes continued for the Panthers on the ensuing drive. Dunne took a shot downfield, but free safety Tre Dempsey jumped in front of Isaiah Weston to snare his fifth interception of the season. NDSU converted a first down on the following drive, but were ultimately forced to punt.
A critical error on the Bison’s next possession ultimately doomed UNI. The Bison lined up to punt on what appeared to be another three-and-out, but Isaiah Nimmers jumped offside to give NDSU a fresh set of downs. Five plays later, Stick connected with R.J. Urzendowski over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown to push the score to 23-7.
Jordheim found a new partner for his third fumble recovery of the afternoon later in the fourth quarter. The Bison’s defensive line flushed Dunne from the pocket, but Derrek Tuszka sacked him, forcing the ball loose and into Jordheim’s hands. The Dickinson, North Dakota native’s three fumble recoveries tied an NDSU record set in 1978. Jordheim had 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack as well.
“In this league, the one thing that should never be stale and never get behind is defense,” Klieman asserted. “You have to play good defense in the league, and I think we have a really good defense.”
Set up at the edge of the red zone once more, the Bison put the finishing touches on the contest with another touchdown. Bruce Anderson, who had struggled throughout the afternoon, dove in for a 1-yard touchdown to give the Bison a 23-point lead.
Dunne linked up with Fountain for a 32-yard touchdown over Jalen Allison in coverage, but the score proved to be too little too late. The worst part of the scoring drive for the Bison was not the touchdown, but rather a targeting penalty issued to thumping linebacker Jabril Cox. Cox was ejected after a video review and will miss the first half of the Herd’s meeting with South Dakota State as a result of the penalty.
“It’ll hurt for the first half, but it’s no different than getting a guy injured,” Klieman said. “The next guy’s gotta step up and nobody’s going to feel sorry for the Bison. We’ll have a heck of a plan ready to go,” Discussing whether he believed the call was correct, Klieman said, “I’m frustrated to be honest.”
With the win, the Bison improved to 8-0 on the season and 5-0 in the conference. At 4-1, South Dakota remains right behind NDSU after their shutout victory over Southern Illinois, 42-0.
“If you want to win this league, you’ve gotta beat the Bison,” Klieman commented. “You’re getting everybody’s best shot every week. I think people expect us to beat people 40-0. It just doesn’t happen in this league.”
The Bison will surely get SDSU’s best shot this Saturday when they travel to Brookings.