North Dakota State found itself in unfamiliar territory on Saturday, trailing by double digits entering the game’s final quarter. A 44-yard field goal by Youngstown State’s Zak Kennedy gave the Penguins a 24-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The last time NDSU trailed by double digits entering the final quarter was October 2013 when Northern Iowa took a 23-10 advantage at the Fargodome before the Bison roared back with two fourth quarter touchdowns to prevail 24-23 on the way to an undefeated season and third straight national championship.
Similar heroics were on tap in Ohio, but this time, instead of a senior quarterback and all-time NCAA wins leader in Brock Jensen leading the charge, it was redshirt freshman, Easton Stick, guiding the Bison to a win that moves them one step closer to home-field advantage throughout the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and a shot at a fifth consecutive national title.
“This team, I’m just so proud to be a Bison, this team is a tough bunch of dudes,” said Stick, who improves to 4-0 as a starter in place of the injured Carson Wentz, including three gutsy road wins that aren’t easy to come by in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. “There is no quit in anybody in that locker room and that is something we really pride ourselves on.”
Following Kennedy’s field goal, the Bison wasted no time starting the comeback. On the first play of the fourth quarter, facing 2nd and 9 from their own 36, Bruce Anderson took a handoff moving towards the left side of the Bison line, got the edge, and raced untouched for 57 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Penguins 7-yard line. The next play, King Frazier finished the quick drive with a touchdown run that pulled the Bison to within a single score at 24-17. “Our guys knew where we were at and the magnitude of this game and where it was going to potentially get us if we could find a way to win it,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “That fourth quarter those guys kept believing and kept believing.”
The two big runs flipped the momentum and had NDSU right back in the thick of things with 14:22 left in the contest. Just as the Bison offense started to answer the bell, the defense, who had trouble containing YSU’s running attack the first three quarters, came to life, locking down tighter than Fort Knox. The Penguins had the ball four times in the game’s final 15 minutes. NDSU held them to minus-5 yards and did not give up a first down until the Penguins’ final drive where they were called for pass interference.
“It shows a lot of our defense about our character and how much we’ve grown since the beginning of the season,” said Brad Ambrosius, a junior defensive end from De Pere, Wis. “How we’ve come together and the leaders have really stepped up, we as a defense, we’re not there yet, we need to keep improving and we’ve done a good thing today.”
The biggest difference in the fourth quarter was NDSU’s ability to get off the field on third down defensively, and convert third downs on the offensive side of the ledger.
That was the message Klieman delivered to his team at halftime when the Bison trailed 14-3. “We have to stay on the field on offense and convert some of these third downs, and we have to get off the field on defense and it was as simple as that. That was the main message.” That doesn’t mean NDSU didn’t change some things schematically after YSU running back Jody Webb ripped the Bison for a 77-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, which was more attributable to missed tackles rather than defenders being out of position. Whatever they did, it worked, as NDSU’s defense suffocated YSU when the game was on the line.
“We changed some things schematically after the long touchdown run, the long touchdown run in reality was a bunch of missed tackles,” began Klieman, explaining the changes. “The formation, the empty set, where they’re motioning the guy back in the backfield, we changed everything on that, what we had worked on in the first half we changed all in the second half and did a better job slowing that thing down. We just hung in there defensively and we made stops when we had to make the stops.”
In addition to Stick, credit another freshman with stepping up big for NDSU when it mattered most. Cam Pedersen hit on both of his field goal tries, the biggest a 40-yarder into the wind that split the uprights to make it 24-20 with 9:57 remaining. From there, the teams traded punts before the Bison got the ball back at their own 46 with 5:26 left. All eyes shifted to Stick and the Bison offense to finish the comeback. Several runs by Anderson and Frazier moved the ball to the YSU 42. Facing a must-have 3rd and 9, Stick drilled a back shoulder dart to tight end Jeff Illies for a 17-yard reception and key first down to keep the drive alive.
“Knowing the coverage they were running we were trying to throw the back shoulder fade and Jeff made some really critical plays,” said Klieman. With two more runs by Anderson and Frazier, NDSU again needed to convert a critical third down, this one a 3rd and 3 from the YSU 18. That’s when things got really exciting. Stick corralled a snap that appeared to have caught him off guard and lofted a pass towards senior wide receiver Nate Moody at the YSU 5. A photo replay clearly showed YSU cornerback, Kenneth Durden, grabbing Moody’s jersey. The officials called a pass interference, which would come back to haunt the Penguins a second time before things were said and done.
The penalty moved the Bison to first-and-goal at the YSU 6 with only 1:18 on the clock. On second down, taking the ball in the shotgun, Stick jab stepped left then went straight up the middle, cutting left to avoid the safety, and gave NDSU their first lead of the day and the decisive score. “Really good play call, it was something we liked, and we knew if we had the opportunity we wanted to get to it,” Stick said, describing the winning touchdown. “The offensive line, tight ends, running back did a great job of opening it up and I just followed them in.”
Like recent Bison quarterbacks, Stick delivered in the clutch. “No question, he needed a challenge in a game where he had to make plays in the fourth quarter,” said Klieman of Stick’s performance.
For all practical purposes, the loss eliminated the Penguins from playoff contention, dropping them to a disappointing 5-5 on the season. Any hope of YSU regaining the lead in the closing seconds evaporated thanks in part to their head coach’s temper tantrum going back to the pass interference call that setup NDSU’s game winner. After NDSU kicked off, Bo Pelini was called for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that pushed the Penguins to their own 4-yard line. Pelini incessantly berated officials, harkening back to his days as Nebraska’s head coach, as shown in video clips making their way around the Internet.
The Bison finish the regular season this weekend at home against a struggling Missouri State (1-9) that’s in last place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, losers of eight straight games. “To come on the road against a really good football team that’s fighting right now, it’s big for us, we’re just going to keep moving forward, but we’re damn proud of this one,” concluded Stick.
If Stick keeps up his play coupled with the Bison running the ball with a renewed authority, and the defense continues its progression, there will be a few more to be proud of come December and January.