CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The Missouri Valley Football Conference has been unique for No. 2-ranked North Dakota State with a three-week break between games due to COVID-19 testing protocols. The Bison, however, are in a typical position heading into the final game of the regular season: In the hunt for a conference crown.
The Bison scored 17 unanswered points late in the first half and into the third quarter to help fuel a 23-20 victory against Northern Iowa on Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
NDSU (6-1, 5-1 MVFC) won its fourth consecutive game to remain in contention for at least a share of a 10th consecutive conference title.
"The Missouri Valley conference championship is our No. 1 goal every year when we start and this spring was no different," said Bison head coach Matt Entz. "We put ourselves in that situation. I know it’s been kind of an up-and-down, roller coaster of a spring, but I couldn’t be more pleased and more excited about the will of our kids."
NDSU has a showdown with rival South Dakota State on Saturday, April 17, at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The Bison would earn the league's automatic bid for the FCS playoffs with a victory against the Jackrabbits. The FCS selection show is scheduled for Sunday, April 18.
"It’s an honor to play for this program," said Bison defense end Brayden Thomas, a Minnesota State-Mankato transfer who had a sack against the Panthers. "It’s a huge family here. I was welcomed with wide arms right away."
Bison fullback Hunter Luepke helped seal the victory with a 2-yard touchdown run that gave NDSU a 23-12 lead with 6 minutes, 17 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. That capped a 12-play, 71-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock. That proved to be the winning score against a UNI team that didn't go quietly in the fourth quarter.
"The end result was a W and that’s what we came here to do as a team," Thomas said. “It was good to kind of get back in the groove and get going again."
Panthers running back Tyler Hoosman scored on a 1-yard run, and ensuing two-point conversion, sliced the Bison lead to 23-20 with 2:47 remaining in the fourth quarter.
UNI got the ball for one last scoring chance with one minute to play in the fourth quarter, but Bison punter Garret Wegner pinned the Panthers at their own 4-yard line. The Panthers ran four plays and were unable to get a first down before NDSU got the ball back and needed one snap to run out the clock.
"I think this will help us get refocused and get ready for next week," said Entz, whose team hadn't played since March 20, which was a 34-13 victory against the University of North Dakota.
Earlier in the fourth, Hoosman had another 1-yard scoring run with 13:16 remaining. That plunge cut the Bison led 17-12 after UNI couldn't convert on the two-point conversion. A couple plays before the Hoosman score, Panthers quarterback Will McElvain connected with wide receiver Logan Wolf for a 41-yard gain to the NDSU 5. While UNI challenged the Bison in the fourth, the Panthers were never able to take the lead.
In the third quarter, the Bison pushed their lead to double digits late. NDSU tight end Josh Babicz hauled in a 36-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Zeb Noland to give NDSU a 17-6 lead with 29 seconds to play in the third. On the play, Bison offensive lineman Grey Zabel lined up out wide in the formation and Babicz broke wide open over the middle. Babicz had to make a shoelace grab as Noland was pressured on the throw. After Babicz secured the low toss, he cruised into the end zone.
The Bison scored 10 points in the final four minutes of the opening half to take a four-point lead into halftime. Christian Watson played a pivotal role in each score. The junior wide receiver started with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to give the Bison a 7-6 lead with 3:20 to play in the second quarter. The Bison never trailed after that TD.
"We haven’t really gotten a lot of chances this year to return (kickoffs)," Watson said. "I wanted that one. I wasn’t going to let that one go."
The next time the Bison got the ball, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Watson added a 61-yard reception that moved the ball to the UNI 16-yard line. That set up a Jake Reinholz 42-yard field goal that gave NDSU a 10-6 lead at the halftime buzzer.
The Panthers took an early lead with two scores in the second quarter on back-to-back drives. Sophomore kicker Matthew Cook gave UNI a 3-0 lead with a 31-yard field goal with 11:41 to play in the second quarter. He later added a 35-yarder for a 6-0 lead with 3:32 to play until halftime. Watson delivered his big play on the ensuing kickoff to quickly erase that UNI lead.
"It was just huge for the momentum, for confidence," Watson said. "To be able to build momentum and build confidence in our guys is huge."
Noland completed 5 of 10 passes for 84 yards in the opening half with 61 of those coming on the long play to Watson. Bison true freshman quarterback Cam Miller also saw limited time in the opening two quarters.
Both defenses were stingy in the opening half with neither offense gaining more than 150 yards from scrimmage. NDSU limited the Panthers to 291 yards on 66 plays for the game. The Bison were playing their first game without veteran cornerback Josh Hayes, who entered the transfer portal earlier this week.
"I'm glad we came together without Josh, who was a big piece of our team," said Bison defensive lineman Eli Mostaert, who had two sacks. "We all came together and played a pretty well-rounded game."