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Shepherd jumpstarts Bison to easy victory over Indiana State

FARGO -- The usual plan for North Dakota State punt returner Darrius Shepherd is to return a kick only if it looks like he won't get immediately tackled. In other words, play it safe.

Jameer Thurman and Rondell Green of Indiana State try to stop RJ Urzendowski of North Dakota State University during the Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, game at the Fargodome. The Bison won 41-17.Dave Wallis / The Forum
Jameer Thurman and Rondell Green of Indiana State try to stop RJ Urzendowski of North Dakota State University during the Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, game at the Fargodome. The Bison won 41-17. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service
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FARGO - The usual plan for North Dakota State punt returner Darrius Shepherd is to return a kick only if it looks like he won't get immediately tackled. In other words, play it safe.

He heeded that plan to perfection, and then some, Saturday afternoon. Shepherd brought a punt back 84 yards for a touchdown and the Bison never looked back in stomping Indiana State 41-17 at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

The win kept the Bison on pace to at least share a Missouri Valley Football Conference title. The fourth-ranked team in the FCS top 25 coaches poll improved to 6-1 in the league and 9-1 overall heading into the regular season finale next week at South Dakota.

Indiana State, which didn't put up much resistance for the second straight week, finished its season at 4-7.

The Sycamores got beat in all three phases starting with the special teams touchdown. Shepherd gathered the ball at his own 16-yard line, shed two tackles almost fumbling on the second one and found a large pathway to the end zone. It was 7-0 with the game not even three minutes old.

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"We talk week in and week out about having the explosive play," Shepherd said. "Special teams can be a game changer."
It was almost a game changer the other way when Shepherd almost lost the handle on the ball.

"Pretty scared," he said. "But it worked out and I had an entourage (of blockers) to the end zone."
It was only the fourth return on the season for Shepherd, who took over that duty last month when senior Eric Perkins hurt his thumb. His previous three went for a combined 11 yards.

This one had some electricity to it and was part of a 21-point outburst in the first quarter. Moreover, it was the third straight game Indiana State gave up a punt return for a touchdown.

"That's unacceptable, that's no way to start a game," said ISU head coach Mike Sanford. "I think it was probably shock and dismay. We were like a fighter on the ropes early. But we came back and fought as the game went on."

Bison quarterback Easton Stick took the big-play baton from there. He scored on a 16-yard run the next time the Bison had the ball and it was 14-0. That was nothing compared to his next scoring run, a 42-yard sprint, where he cut back around the 10-yard line instead of going out of bounds.

"We don't go out of bounds at NDSU," Stick said. "That's not how it works. The guys did a good job of opening holes and I tried to find a way to win my one-on-one."

It was the second straight year the Sycamores had trouble containing Stick, who made his first career start at Indiana State and scored two touchdowns. In all, he finished with 85 yards rushing on just four attempts with Shepherd his favorite target in the air with four catches for 40 yards.

The Bison took a 34-7 halftime lead and immediately expanded that taking the second half kickoff and drove 78 yards in nine plays with Lance Dunn's 10-yard run making it 41-7. It wasn't too much longer when Stick went to the bench in favor of backup Cole Davis, who saw his most extensive playing time this season.

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NDSU finished with 243 yards rushing - its third straight game of at least 200. The Bison have run for more than 700 in the last three games, two against potential playoff teams in Youngstown State and Northern Iowa.

Bison senior offensive tackle Landon Lechler said an emphasis of getting to the line of scrimmage out of the huddle earlier has helped read the opposing defenses.

"We're getting to the line as quickly as possible and executing," he said.

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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