Schnepf: North Dakota State's finish product is a win
NORMAL, Ill. -- There was a time Saturday when the play of top-ranked North Dakota State looked as messy as the construction site behind its bench.
But when it's all said and done, what matters is the finished product.
Next year at this time, the construction site will be a sparkling new Hancock Stadium for Illinois State. Just as sparkling was NDSU's 38-20 win, one in which the Bison erupted for 21 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes.
"We just knew things were going to go right," said Bison defensive lineman Cole Jirik, who kept reminding himself and his teammates that "we're fine, we're all right."
They certainly are -- clinching an outright Missouri Valley Football Conference championship and virtually assuring themselves of a top seed and home-field advantage for the upcoming playoffs.
But it didn't look that way at halftime, when Illinois State made NDSU's nationally ranked defense look flustered for the first time this season. To make matters worse, the Bison offense sputtered like it did during its three previous games.
"When you are playing for a conference championship, it's going to come down to someone making big plays," said Bison head coach Craig Bohl.
Big plays -- something that has been lacking lately -- were abundant for the Bison on Saturday.
Marcus Williams' 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Sam Ojuri runs for 47 and 32 yards certainly helped keep the Bison close at halftime.
That was all the Bison needed to regroup for the second half.
"We found out why they are national champions and why they are No. 1," said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. "They never got rattled. I was very impressed."
As has been the case all season, the defense provided the spark.
After Jirik stripped the ball from quarterback Matt Brown, the Bison offense marched 70 yards to take the lead for good, 24-20.
Less than three minutes later, Jirik forced another Brown fumble. On the next play, Ryan Smith hauled in a 39-yard pass to set up a touchdown to make it 31-20.
"When you see that little Ryan catching the ball in the seam like that, it's definitely a big momentum shift," said Bison center Joe Lund, who was well aware of the offense's first-half woes. "It's pretty amazing when you see two guys going for 100 yards."
Who would've guessed in the first half - when the Bison mustered only 128 total yards -- that Ojuri and fellow back John Crockett would combine for 227 rushing yards? The last time the Bison had two 100-yard rushers was on this field in 2008.
Who would've guessed that the defense -- which allowed 240 total yards in the first half -- would adjust and limit the Redbirds to 78 total yards in the second half?
"You can overcome a lot of obstacles with the bond that we have as a team," said Bison quarterback Brock Jensen. "We don't want to let each other down."
That camaraderie and maturity for a team with only seven seniors is a big reason why the Bison have won 11 straight road games. Meanwhile, Spack could not explain why his 11th-ranked team has now lost three home games.
"We even thought about changing sidelines for this game," Spack said.
That would've put them in front of that messy construction site. Instead, it was the Bison standing next to it -- finding a way to clean up their own mess.
Schnepf is the sports editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.