FARGO — The smallest home crowd in nearly 10 seasons saw North Dakota State force two key second-half turnovers to advance to the NCAA Division I FCS quarterfinals and make history.
NDSU pulled away from Nicholls State after halftime to earn a 37-13 victory before 15,690 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The Bison extended their winning streak to 34 games, setting an FCS record for consecutive wins. NDSU won 33 games in a row from 2012-2014.
"It's a testament to the program," said Bison tight end Ben Ellefson, who had one catch for 36 yards. "We're not doing anything special or different than teams before us have done. ... It's pretty cool to be a part of it. But it's something we aren't looking at right now."
NDSU (13-0) is set to host Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Illinois State next weekend in the FCS quarterfinals. Bison head coach Matt Entz said the team wasn't focused on the winning streak.
"The fact that we went 1-0 this week was great," Entz said. "It's good for NDSU. It's good for the football program."
The Bison have advanced to at least the FCS quarterfinals for a 10th consecutive season. The game against Nicholls State was the smallest home crowd for NDSU since 2010 when the Bison defeated Robert Morris (Pa.) before 12,002 fans in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
"I feel like we've been in the playoffs the last six weeks," Nicholls State head coach Tim Rebowe said. "We just ran out of gas."
The Bison scored the game's final 23 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. NDSU had the ball for more than 10 minutes in the final quarter, while gaining 115 yards. Nicholls State had 17 yards on seven plays over the final 15 minutes.
"They are very well conditioned," said Nicholls State defensive tackle Sully Laiche. "I give a shoutout to them. ... If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best and as of right now, they are."
The Bison intercepted Nicholls State quarterback Chase Fourcade on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, leading to 10 NDSU points.
A Michael Tutsie interception set up a Will Cardinal 32-yard field goal that gave the Bison a 17-13 lead with 6 minutes, 26 seconds to play in the third.
Bison senior safety James Hendricks added an interception that he returned 48 yards to the NSU 13-yard line. That led to a Trey Lance 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Noah Gindorff for a 24-13 lead with 2:58 remaining in the third.
"We knew we couldn't turn the ball over," Fourcade said.
Lance later scored on a 6-yard touchdown run that gave the Bison a 31-13 lead with 8:21 to play in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Lance added a 34-yarder later in the fourth. That set up a Dimitri Williams 4-yard scoring run that gave the Bison a 37-13 lead with 3:12 remaining.
Lance completed 10 of 16 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 88 yards and a score on 11 attempts.
"He's definitely a special player," Laiche said. "He's just longer and thicker. You just can't tackle him with a shoulder."
Nicholls State hung in the game late into the third quarter.
NDSU took a 14-10 lead into halftime after getting a 45-yard touchdown run on a reverse by wide receiver Phoenix Sproles and a 43-yard touchdown pass from Lance to Jimmy Kepouros.
Sproles' score gave the Bison a 7-3 lead on the last play of the first quarter, taking a handoff from running back Adam Cofield and weaving his way down the right sideline for the score. That was the first career rushing touchdown for Sproles.
The Colonels came back to regain the lead, going 82 yards in 12 plays boosted by four consecutive runs of eight yards on first down. Nicholls State converted a first down on each second down play, then struck with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Fourcade to receiver Dai'Jean Dixon. That made it 10-7 with 12:53 left before halftime.
The Bison answered going 80 yards in six plays, with the big play a 21-yard pass from Lance to Sproles on third-and-10 that reached the Nicholls State 46-yard line. The Kepouros scoring catch gave NDSU a 14-10 lead with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. That was the first career touchdown catch for Kepouros.
The Colonels got the ball to start the second half and capped that drive with a Gavin Lasseigne 23-yard field goal that cut the Bison lead to 14-13 with 10:36 to play in the third.
"Our guys were feeling pretty good," Rebowe said.
Nicholls State, however, didn't score any more points after that as the Bison defense came up with the two key third-quarter interceptions. NDSU limited Nicholls State to 265 yards, which was a season-low output against an FCS opponent this season.
"We need to play better," Entz said. "We have to start faster. ... There's no such thing as a bad win."