As the regular season starts to wind down in the Missouri Valley Conference and in all of college football, the Bison have been playing some of their best football of the season. As they traveled to Southern Illinois on Veterans Day weekend, the Bison looked to push their winning streak to three games over the Salukis who, on the other hand, are trying to avoid a three-game losing streak. Following a quick start for North Dakota State, the Bison remained stagnant on offense for a big chunk of the game. Thanks in part to solid play from senior defensive leaders James Kaczor and Spencer Waege, the Bison were able to fend off the Salukis until a late offensive surge led the Bison to victory.
The Salukis’ opening drive consisted of many third and fourth down plays, most of which were converted. However, following two conversions on third down and one on fourth down, the Bison defense would prevail, forcing a punt. The Bison, on the other hand, averaging 13 yards per play on their initial possession, reached the end zone on a 27-yard touchdown pass by Cam Miller to Kobe Johnson, the first receiving touchdown of Johnson’s career. Miller, who only passed for 86 yards on the day, put the Bison up 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
The next three drives for each team followed a relatively similar pattern; stalled drives. Following an unsuccessful Bison drive, Dawson Weber and the Bison defense would do their best to help their team out. The sixth-year senior would intercept Salukis’ quarterback Nic Baker near midfield, setting the Bison up with great field position. However, the Salukis’ defense which ranks ninth in the country in run defense would get a chance to flex their muscles as they forced the Bison to punt.
Going back to last Saturday, the Salukis fell just short of the Northern Iowa Panthers 37-36 despite a great effort from their signal caller Nic Baker. Baker threw for an incredible 485 yards and three touchdowns in the Saluki defeat. Despite throwing for just 63 yards in the first half this week, Baker would make some noise with his legs at the end of the half. Baker’s 29-yard run, his longest of the season, set Southern Illinois up in scoring position. A few plays later, Jake Baumgarte’s 28-yard field goal cut the Bison lead to 7-3 at the half.
In the first 30 minutes of play, the Bison were dominated by the Salukis in terms of the time of possession as North Dakota State held the football for just 9:38 of the first half. The second half started the same way as the Salukis went on a 60-yard drive that lasted 13 plays and over seven and a half minutes. Finished off by a 1-yard rushing touchdown by fullback Jacob Garrett, the Salukis had taken a 10-7 lead over North Dakota State with 5:18 to go in the third quarter.
The Bison would respond on the ensuing drive thanks to a couple of gifts from their opponent. On the kickoff, Saluki linebacker Jeff Wells would be called for an unsportsmanlike foul. To add to that, fellow linebacker Louis Wilbert would be ejected after being penalized for targeting. Despite being without Mason Miller and Hunter Luepke, who each suffered injuries in the first half, the Bison found some momentum as they were given a free 30 yards.
“Penalties change the flow of the game,” Jacob Garrett asserted. “We had all the momentum right there and we kind of just nulled it with those two penalties. It’s definitely something to learn from.”
The offense would get the execution they needed to be led by Cam Miller. Following huge third-down completions to tight end Joe Stoffel and receiver Zach Mathis, Miller took the ball himself and ran in a touchdown for the fourth straight game, this one from 5 yards out. Following the score, the Bison now had the lead 14-10 with 14:21 to go in regulation.
Following a sack by Spencer Waege and Javier Derritt, one of five for the day by the Bison, the Bison looked to expand their lead. Just as the Salukis did earlier in the half, the Bison would go on a seven-plus minute drive of their own. Aided by a penalty and big plays from a number of Bison playmakers, North Dakota State completed a drive lasting 7:38 on a 3-yard touchdown run from TaMerik Williams. As the clock ticked under five minutes, the Herd had now rolled to a 21-10 lead.
“That’s a big cat rolling through there,” Entz said of Williams on Monday. “You’ve got to bite down on your mouthpiece if you want to tackle him.”
Succeeding the touchdown, Nic Baker continued to make plays despite the continued great play of defensive linemen Spencer Waege and Jaxon Duttenhefer, who each sacked Baker on the drive. The junior quarterback drove his team 81 yards, the last six coming on a touchdown pass to D’Ante Cox. After the two-point conversion to Avante Cox was successful, the Salukis trailed 21-18 with 39 seconds to go.
On the impending onside kick, the Bison placed senior linebacker James Kaczor on the front line straight on with the kicker. Kaczor, who was a terrific offensive player at St. Cloud Tech High School, stepped up and recovered the onside kick. Following a trio of kneel-downs by Cam Miller, the Bison clinched their third straight victory.
“Playing really good teams, playing the schedule that we do, there’s really no margin for error,” Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill stated. “That’s a really good team that got a chance of winning a national championship.”
As the Bison improve to 6-1 in the conference and 8-2 overall, they will welcome the Fighting Hawks (7-3, 5-2 MVFC) from the University of North Dakota to Fargo next Saturday. The winner of the annual Nickel Trophy game will finish second in the conference while the loser is likely the last team in from the MVFC to the FCS playoffs. Kickoff from the Fargodome will be at 2:30 p.m. with student tickets available at GoBison.com/Students.
James Kaczor; 14 tackles; 1 TFL; Spencer Waege; 10 tackles; 1.5 Sacks
TaMerik Williams; 12 Car 56 Yds, 1 TD; Kobe Johnson; 64 total yards; 1 TD