Missed opportunities haunt Bison in 31-28 loss to Arizona 

History doesn’t repeat itself for the Herd in the desert

On August 30, 2013, North Dakota State was given an opportunity they could not let slip away. With 8:58 to go in the game on a scorching hot Friday night, the Bison trailed Kansas State 21-17 with the ball at their own 20-yard line. After eight and half minutes, 18 plays, and four 3rd down conversions, Bison quarterback Brock Jensen scored on a one-yard touchdown run to give the Bison a 24-21 win to start what would become a perfect 15-0 season. Over nine years later, the Bison were facing a similar situation. On a warm September night and down by three points late in the fourth quarter, the Bison would get a chance to replicate “The Drive” and come away with their 10th win in school history against an FBS team. The outcome this time, however, would not be the same. 

Arizona would get on the board first thanks to a 6-yard touchdown run by Arizona’s Michael Wiley to put Arizona up 7-0. However, the Bison would respond emphatically. While certainly making his mark in the run game, fullback Hunter Luepke would also make his mark in the passing game. With one minute to go in the opening frame, quarterback Cam Miller connected with a wide-open Hunter Luepke who slipped past the Wildcat defense for a 31-yard score. Celebrating with a leg dab, the Wisconsin native tied the game with a receiving touchdown for the second straight week. 

On the ensuing possession, Arizona made a bold decision to keep their offense on the field for a fourth down and two from their own 33-yard line. Arizona lined up in wildcat formation with receiver Jamarye Joiner taking the snap, who was stopped short of the line to gain on the run. Regaining possession inside the 35-yard line gave the Bison offense a significant opportunity to take the lead. Working the ball down to the 5-yard line thanks to runs from Luepke and backup QB Cole Payton, the Bison offense that went 4-4 in the red zone last week looked sure to punch it in. However, Arizona defensive lineman Hunter Echols had another thought in mind. With Miller rolling to his right, Echols snuck up behind and punched the ball out of Miller’s hands to be recovered by his teammates. 

“It’s things we pride ourselves on. It would have been great It is what it is. Those things happen, we’re going to learn from it.” Entz said of the turnover.  

Arizona, however, seemed to have no problem executing great opportunities Saturday night. Arizona quarterback Jayden DeLaura accounted for 80 of the Wildcats’ 83 yards on their ensuing 10-play touchdown drive. The drive would end via a 7-yard touchdown run by DeLaura to give Arizona a 14-7 lead at the 5:45 mark in the second quarter. DeLaura had not made much of a mark in the run game in previous weeks, but he was certainly a force to be reckoned with in all aspects of the game. DeLaura ran for 50 yards on the ground to go along with his 229 yards passing. 

“When stuff wasn’t going our way and I didn’t run, that was kind of when our offense went down,” DeLaura stated. “So, this game I put it on myself and games after that if everything’s covered downfield, they’ve still got to stop me (running).” 

However, North Dakota State would not trail for long. Thanks in part to a Wildcats’ penalty, and another huge catch by Hunter Luepke deep in Arizona territory, the Bison found themselves at the two-yard line in prime position to score. With an empty backfield, Cam Miller took the ball himself and followed his blockers, led by guard Nash Jensen, into the end zone to tie the game at 14 with just 50 seconds to go in the half. 

After the score, it looked as if we would have a 14-14 tie going into halftime. However, DeLaura and the Wildcats’ offense had other ideas and quickly worked their way downfield. A 30-yard pitch and catch from DeLaura to Dorian Singer followed by a pass interference call on Bison cornerback Jayden Price would set Arizona up in the red zone with four seconds remaining in the half. The penalty was the fifth of the half for NDSU as opposed to just one for Arizona. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Wildcats kicker Tyler Loop nailed a 36-yard field goal as time expired to give Arizona a 17-14 halftime lead. 

Having already accumulated nearly 100 rushing yards in the first half, the Bison rushing attack laid a solid foundation for the offense in the second half. Early in the third quarter, the Bison took over possession at their own 24-yard line. In just six plays, four Bison running backs carried the offense all the way down the field. Receiving a Cam Miller pitch to cap off the drive was Luepke on a 6-yard run to give the Bison their first lead of the game at 21-17 with just over five minutes off the clock in the second half. 

“I think the O-line was just moving people off the ball,” Luepke said on utilizing the run game. “We were getting three yards or more of a push at each place, so I think that’s just what we wanted to stick with and keep the ball moving.” 

NDSU running back Hunter Luepke carries the ball at Arizona last Saturday | Photo Credit NDSU Athletics

In the past, the Bison ground game has had great success running the football against FBS teams. Rushing for a season-high 283 yards as a team on Saturday, the Bison have now rushed for over 200 yards as a team in their last four games against FBS schools. 

Entering the game, the Bison had not allowed a single rushing touchdown in their first two games. After Arizona running back Jonah Coleman ran in a touchdown from two yards out on the ensuing Wildcat possession, that number went from zero to three in less than forty minutes of game time. While reaching the end zone for the first time in his career, Coleman gave the Wildcats the lead back 24-21. 

The Bison would continue to fight back, however. After a handful of runs to get the ball inside Arizona territory, the Bison would give the ball to who else but Hunter Luepke. On a simple run up the middle, Luepke proved he’s got that dawg in him by running through Arizona defenders until he broke loose 38 yards to the end zone, scoring for the third time. With the run, Luepke eclipsed 100 rushing yards in a game for the third time in his career. 

After a missed Arizona field goal, the Bison looked to extend the lead. On the seventh play of the drive, NDSU decided to keep the offense on the field instead attempting a long field goal. With Cole Payton in at quarterback, NDSU tried to power their way to a first down with Payton but was stopped a yard short. 

“We were going for it. There was no hesitation,” Entz stated postgame. “Based on our week of practice it was the right decision and I don’t second guess it.” 

Arizona would proceed to take advantage of the missed opportunity and drive 78 yards in 10 plays thanks to a balanced offensive attack. The drive was finished off when Arizona’s top wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who was not targeted in the first half, burned past linebacker Oscar Benson and hauled in a 22-yard touchdown. The fourth lead change of the game put the Wildcats up 31-28 with 4:53 to go in the game. 

The Bison had scored all three times in response to an Arizona touchdown and by starting at their own 25-yard line they would get another chance to do so. However, on a 3rd & 10 from that same spot, a screen pass to receiver Braylon Henderson went nowhere and forced the Bison to punt. 

Following the punt, the Wildcats would pick up the first down they needed to go into victory formation and clinch a win at home as a 2.5-point underdog. 

Despite the loss, Coach Entz was however very pleased with how many of the 41,211 in attendance were members of Bison Nation. 

“I have to say something about Bison Nation being here tonight,” Entz stated postgame. “Unbelievable, the passion, the volume that they created. They took over Tucson and when you get to coach at a place that has that much passion and that much support of these young men, it’s second to none.” 

The Bison will travel to Vermillion, South Dakota next Saturday to take on the South Dakota Coyotes as they begin play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Bison, who will kick off next week at 1:00 p.m., have not lost in Vermillion since 2002. 

The Bison (2-1) will play their next home game on Saturday, October 1 against Youngstown State at 1:00 p.m. at the Fargodome. It will be homecoming for the Bison. Student tickets will be available at GoBison.com/Students beginning at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 24th

Game Stats: 

Hunter Luepke; 18 Car – 115 Yds, 2 TD; 3 Rec – 65 Yds, 1 TD; James Kaczor; 9 tackles, 1 TFL; TaMerik Williams; 4 Car – 53 Yds 

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