FARGO -- The weekend started with an October blizzard that virtually crippled most of the state of North Dakota. Note to North Dakota State decision makers: It’s time to re-think having homecoming in a month when snow is possible.
The parade was canceled. Flights were canceled. The town, normally hopping on a Friday night, was deadsville. Thankfully for the school, the football team put a positive spin on everything on Saturday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 18,178 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
First off, how did that many people show up when many miles of interstate highway were closed?
“First thing I have to say,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said in opening his postgame press conference. “I need to make a comment to all the people who came regardless of the weather. Unbelievable crowd. Everything was shut down, but I knew they would find a way to get here and I’m sure many of them took the backroads and stayed off the interstate. It was fun to see that group here today.”
Second, how can 186-pound cornerback Josh Hayes hit another player with the force of a snow plow? That’s what happened early in the third quarter and the forced fumble was a key play in NDSU’s 46-14 Missouri Valley Football Conference win.
Hayes measured up UNI receiver Deion McShane after McShane caught a short pass from quarterback Will McElvain. Hayes’ hit forced a fumble and teammate Marquise Bridges recovered it at the Panther 35-yard line.
“It was huge coming out of halftime, we had to set the tone,” Hayes said. “I saw a chance to make a play and I did.”
Hayes’ hit was textbook, using his shoulder and driving it in the midsection of McShane. The key is to avoid using the helmet as a tackling tool, which is a 15-yard targeting penalty and a game ejection. It was a hit you would expect from a linebacker like Jabril Cox, not a cornerback.
“I’ve been teaching Josh Hayes a little bit on what to do,” Cox said with a laugh. “Josh made a great read and a great play using his shoulder and not getting a targeting call was pretty big for us.”
Two plays later, quarterback Trey Lance found a wide open tight end Noah Gindorff and the 30-yard scoring play turned an iffy-looking 18-14 halftime lead to 25-14.
“It changes the whole game and the way the energy is brought,” Cox said. “Josh really helped us out in moving forward.”
UNI helped NDSU’s cause by dropping a touchdown pass and missing a field goal on its ensuing possession.
“Those three plays probably started what all went down,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley.
The Bison put it away in the fourth quarter and for the second straight league game, the NDSU defense held the fort against a nationally-ranked opponent. Last week, Illinois State struggled all day in NDSU’s 37-3 win. This week, No. 10 Northern Iowa didn’t come to Fargo with the playmakers it used to have like running back David Johnson.
Its offense mainly consisted of McElvain trying to create enough space to complete passes. That’s not a recipe to end a 26-game winning streak.
Take away a so-so second half against the University of Delaware and the Bison defense ended the first half of the regular season with the following grade: A-plus.
There’s no other way to put it. The Bison lost some marquee talent after its seventh FCS title in eight years last year and the expectations coming into this season were it may take some time for the defense to grow.
Maybe it took several second-half plays at Delaware that irked Entz for that to happen. Whatever the case, the maturity seems to be there.
Take the weather issue. It started to hit on Thursday and with the dome in use, the Bison opted to not practice in the driving rain, instead doing a walkthrough practice in the Shelly Ellig Indoor Track and Field Facility.
The Friday practice, then, turned into more of a practice. NDSU in essence flipped its Thursday-Friday routine and for advice, Entz turned to help from the likes of the University of Iowa, which uses a similar schedule.
“Our players did an unbelievable job of handling it like professionals,” Entz said. “To a group that hasn’t experienced a change in schedule like that, they didn’t blink.”
That carried over to the field. McElvain is a playmaker who almost beat Iowa State, but the Bison contained him from doing much damage. Winter gave NDSU a curveball in the last few days and the players and fans handled it with northern toughness.