Photo By Hillary Ehlen
In a year that is anything but normal, North Dakota State winning a fall football game should bring a nice sense of comfort to many. While the Bison were able to walk out of the Fargodome with a 39-28 win over Central Arkansas on Saturday, how they got there was on par with the rest of 2020: abnormal.
“We preach finishing,” said sophomore quarterback Trey Lance. “When it’s crunch time, we come through.”
It was by no means a traditional start for North Dakota State. The Bison were unable to gain any yards on their first offensive drive. On their second possession, Trey Lance was stripped of the ball, giving Central Arkansas a prime opportunity at a score. It was Lance’s first turnover in a Bison uniform.
However, NDSU’s Code Green defense was able to hold true. They forced the Bears to only a field goal following the turnover. Central Arkansas carried a 3-0 lead seven minutes into the contest. With the Bison offense stalling, Central Arkansas would hold that 3-0 lead after one quarter. The two teams combined for 58 yards through 15 minutes.
Early in the second quarter, NDSU’s offense continued to look a tad rusty. With favorable field position following a stalled Bison drive, Central Arkansas connected on a 41-yard field goal. With just under 12 minutes left in the half, the Bears held a 6-0 lead.
“It wasn’t as if we were off. This is just a game of inches” said head coach Matt Entz of the slow start for the Bison offense. “It shows the resolve of our football team.”
The ensuing drive saw North Dakota State gain some momentum on the offensive end. This was thanks to the returning Seth Wilson, who was able to knife through UCA’s defense for a pair of seven-yard runs. A 14-yard run by fullback Hunter Luepke coupled with a UCA targeting penalty helped bring the Bison into the red zone. Trey Lance found Josh Babicz in the end zone for a 13-yard score a play later. With nine minutes remaining in the first half, North Dakota State took control of the scoreboard, 7-6.
The Bison defense remained dominant, forcing another Central Arkansas punt on their next drive. North Dakota State’s offense continued to gain steam as the half drew to a close. This included 37 rush yards from Trey Lance and the Bison connecting on a 27-yard field goal. The Bison went to the locker room with a 10-6 halftime lead.
NDSU held the advantage in total yards, gaining 129 yards to UCA’s 100. The Bison were also to accrue nine first downs in the first 30 minutes.
As the second half got underway, the Bison looked like the offense of old. Trey Lance ran 54 yards for a score on the second play of the half. Lance had only accounted for 76 total yards in the first two frames. On this one drive, he racked up 75 yards alone. NDSU followed that up with a two-point conversion by linebacker James Kaczor. Just like that, it was 18-6 Bison early in the third quarter.
The Bears would respond, however. They marched 75 yards down the field on five plays and brought the score to 18-13.
Lance threw his first career interception on NDSU’s next drive. This placed Central Arkansas in a prime position to take command of the game. The Bears did just that, scoring on four plays and taking a 20-18 lead with just under ten minutes left in the third quarter. The momentum had shifted in favor of Central Arkansas.
The teams would trade punts over the next ten minutes with both defenses standing tall. The score stood at 20-18 after three quarters. NDSU needed a conversion on third and three to keep a solid offensive drive alive to start the fourth. While NDSU did not pick up the first down, they opted to go for it on fourth and short. Lance was able to pick up enough for a first and took the Bison into the red zone.
Lance’s legs would give the Bison a lead on the scoreboard. A 14-yard touchdown run gave NDSU a 25-20 lead. It was Lance’s second rushing touchdown of the contest. The sophomore quarterback racked up 143 yards on the ground by game’s end.
“His legs can extend plays,” said Entz. “He made them pay a couple of times with his ability to make plays.”
As they did for most of the afternoon, Central Arkansas answered back. On a seven play, 79-yard drive, the Bears regained the lead. With a two-point conversion, Central Arkansas led 28-25 with just over ten minutes remaining.
The Bison were able to string together some offensive consistency at the right time. NDSU put together a seven-play drive which culminated in a 23-yard touchdown pass to fullback Hunter Luepke. Once again, the Bison were back on top 32-28 midway through the final frame.
“I’m just worried about run blocking and doing what I need to do when my number is called,” said Luepke of his performance.
Code Green was able to scrounge up a timely stop on the UCA’s next possession. As the defense forced a punt, it was now on the Bison offense to put the game on ice.
The Bison were able to do that. Putting together a drive that spanned nearly four minutes and finished with a 13-yard touchdown run from Luepke, his second of the game. With just under two minutes left, North Dakota State held a commanding 39-28 lead.
“As the game went on, we saw the effectiveness of having that big back,” said Entz of the fullback Luepke.
That score would hold true to the end after a Jayden Price interception. The Bison finished the game with 414 yards of total offense.
North Dakota State will not play another football game in the fall. Next on the docket is a February 21 date with Youngstown State at the Fargodome.
“We’ll be excited and ready to play when the spring comes,” said linebacker James Kaczor.
Stars Of The Game
Hunter Luepke (Fullback): 31 rush yards, one rushing touchdown, 29 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown.
James Kaczor (Linebacker): 11 total tackles (six solo) and one tackle for loss.
Trey Lance (Quarterback): 149 pass yards, two passing touchdowns, 143 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns.