The Score – No. 1 North Dakota State (14-0) beat Illinois State (10-5) 9-3 in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
Story Line – Winning a rematch of Missouri Valley Football Conference rivals, the two-time defending national champion Bison advanced to the national semifinals for the ninth straight season, but they had to hold on precariously with defense after Griffin Crosa kicked three field goals in the second quarter. They have won 35 straight games since 2017.
Game Balls – Crosa, a true freshman, converted from 38, 33 and 22 yards to stake NDSU to a 9-0 halftime lead. With Illinois State so run-oriented, junior linebacker Jabril Cox stepped up his play with eight tackles, including six solos. Also, hats off (or helmets) to Illinois State running back James Robinson (24 carries, 94 yards), who ended his three-game playoff run with 102 carries for 611 yards and three touchdowns.
Key Stats – The Bison relied on their defense because they didn’t score a touchdown at home for the first time since Oct. 12, 2002 (in a Division II game against North Dakota) and were outrushed for the first time since their last loss (Nov. 4, 2017 at South Dakota State). In a big difference maker, NDSU was a combined 8 of 18 on third- and fourth-down conversions, while Illinois State was just 3 of 14 as the Bison often applied pressure on Redbirds quarterback Bryce Jefferson.
The Takeaway – North Dakota State has shown some vulnerability through two playoff wins, although it’s also hard to argue with a perfect record in coach Matt Entz’s first season. The Redbirds defense disrupted offenses with sacks and takeaways all season that it seemed Bison redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance, the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award winner, played cautiously (he was 10 of 21 for 135 yards), and eventually his team settled into playing not to lose. A play that was blown dead as an incompletion instead of being a lateral – as replays suggested – wiped away a Redbirds recovery and a potential touchdown return. With three of the other top five seeds still alive in the playoffs, the Bison need to find a higher level of play again if they are going to make it eight national titles in the decade.
Up Next – North Dakota State will host No. 5 seed Montana State (11-3) in a national semifinal Dec. 21. The visitor from the Big Sky Conference holds a 21-13 series lead, but in the most recent meeting last December, NDSU eliminated the Bobcats 52-10 in the playoff second round.