3 things we learned: North Dakota State outlasts ISU Redbirds 21-13
Saturday at 6:44 pm
The last time Illinois State met up with North Dakota State in the FargoDome each team was led by a future NFL standout. While that wasn’t the case Saturday, the result was similar—the game went down to the wire.
In that 2019 FCS quarterfinal, NDSU and this spring’s projected first-round draft pick Trey Lance nipped ISU and Jacksonville Jaguars rookie sensation James Robinson 9-3 as the Bison worked its way another national championship.
While Saturday’s game didn’t feature the name recognition and star power of that matchup, it contained many of the same ingredients—strong defense, power running games and a late big-time play from a freshman quarterback.
Fifth-ranked and once-beaten North Dakota State outlasted No. 22 Illinois State 21-13 in Missouri Valley Football Conference action.
“It was kind of deju vu from the last time we played up here. We had a chance with the last possession to go down and tie the game,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said in the postgame.
True freshman NDSU quarterback Cam Miller weaved his way on a six-yard touchdown scramble to complete a 13-play, 84-yard drive to ice the game with 3:39 left. The scoring drive chewed up eight minutes and 13 seconds on the clock.
“He’s a good athlete,” Spack said of Miller. “He brings the quarterback run game. He’s more of an option for them when he’s playing.”
Miller—who took over for Zeb Noland—ran 11 times for 57 yards while completing 5-of-7 passes for 61 yards. Noland had no rushes and was 6-for-13 passing for 72 yards. Noland was intercepted twice.
The win boosted NDSU to 4-1 overall and 3-1 in conference a week ahead of its showdown with rival and third-ranked North Dakota, which beat Western Illinois 38-21 Saturday in Macomb.
The loss dropped Illinois State to 0-3.
Here are three things we learned:
- Defense is still an Illinois State staple.
Spack, a former Purdue linebacker and defensive coordinator, has long relied on his defense to spearhead his team. The 12th-year head coach certainly had to be pleased with the unit Saturday.
ISU’s defense sparked the Redbirds’ comeback.
The Redbird defense has been injury-riddled this spring. Already down two key defensive linemen, ISU linebacker Zeke Vandenburg was also hampered by ailments Saturday yet continued to play.
ISU defensive back Charles Woods had two interceptions and eight tackles. Fellow defensive back Clayton Isbell also proved to be disruptive. The St. Charles East High School graduate had two tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble.
“When I saw the opportunity, I just ripped. The ball came out and I jumped on it,” Isbell said. “When I stripped it, it (the ball) hit my chest and then the ground and then back to my chest.”
ISU’s defense forced NDSU to punt with 1:45 remaining in the game, giving the Redbirds one last chance on offense. However, ISU could only advance to its own 47 before quarterback Bryce Jefferson’s last-second desperation heave was batted down.
2. Special teams doomed the Redbirds.
A punt return for a touchdown and a blocked extra point proved to be major factors that kept ISU from pulling off the upset.
NDSU’s Jake Reinholz broke off an 85-yard punt return at the 11:20 mark of the first quarter.
After ISU rallied to within a point in the fourth quarter, NDSU’s Spencer Waege broke through and blocked Aidan Bresnahan’s extra point attempt.
“We spend a lot of time of special teams, probably more than most teams do. It’s a critical piece to what we do,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said postgame.
The Redbirds also failed to field NDSU’s final punt and thus started their final drive at their own 17-yard line with no timeouts.
3. ISU got its running game going.
“We found a couple tailbacks,” Spack said of redshirt freshman Nigel White and sophomore Pha’leak Brown.
“The speed you saw with Nigel, that’s the speed we saw in training camp. He’s going to be a good player,” Spack added. “Pha’leak is going to be a good player . . . the running game is much better than the last time we came. It just felt better.”
That’s high praise considering ISU featured Robinson, who set a record for most yards gained by an undrafted rookie this past NFL season. In that 2019 playoff game, Robinson rushed for 94 yards on 24 attempts.
White ran for 87 yards on 15 carries Saturday, including a 32-yard run. Brown added 35 yards on eight attempts.
Yet, it was sophomore Tyler Pennington that scored the quick-hitting touchdown on a third down call to pull ISU to within a point at 14-13 at the 11:59 mark of the fourth quarter.
The failed extra point followed.
“That was a low snap on the extra point and so the holder wasn’t able to tee the ball up and the ball was laying flat,” Spack explained.
Illinois State hosts rival Western Illinois Saturday, March 20 at Hancock Stadium in Normal.