FARGO — North Dakota State got the first spring season in Division I FCS football history off to a winning start Sunday afternoon. The Bison did it with a productive ground game and a defense that made life tough on Youngstown State.
NDSU defensive end Spencer Waege helped lead the defensive charge with 2.5 tackles for a loss, including a half sack. The Bison limited the Penguins to 171 yards in a 25-7 victory at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome before a pandemic-limited crowd of 6,578 fans.
“I think everyone was fired up just ready to go," said Waege, who didn't play in NDSU's lone fall game last October due to a foot injury.
The Bison (2-0, 1-0 MVFC) extended their winning streak to 39 games with senior quarterback Zeb Noland making his first career start for NDSU. Trey Lance started for the Bison in their 39-28 victory against Central Arkansas in the fall before Lance declared for the NFL Draft.
“I’m really pleased with how clean a game it was," Bison head coach Matt Entz said of Sunday's spring opener. "No turnovers, no sacks, very few penalties.”
The 6-foot-5, 274-pound Waege is playing nearly 20 pounds heavier than he did during the 2019 season.
“He has done an outstanding job of developing himself," Entz said. “He’s pushing 280 right now, probably moving better than he did when he weighed 260. He’s a matchup for us on the defensive side.”
The Bison limited Youngstown State to 51 rushing yards on 34 attempts. The Penguins had 41 total yards and one first down in the first half as NDSU took an 11-0 lead into halftime. YSU gained most of its yards, 75 of them, on its lone touchdown drive in the third quarter.
“I thought we played well. We (gave up) one long drive," said Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey, who had a game-high 14 total tackles. “There wasn’t a lot of explosive plays that we gave up. ... I thought we did a good job and hopefully to do the same moving forward.”
In contrast, the Bison chewed up yards on the ground, rushing for 243 yards on 40 attempts, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Sophomore running back Kobe Johnson fueled that effort, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts.
“I came out with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, with a little bit of hunger," Johnson said.
The Bison thrived on the ground, even though they lost starting running back Seth Wilson on his second carry of the game with a lower-leg injury. Wilson never returned and Entz didn't have an update on Wilson's health postgame.
Johnson and freshman Jalen Bussey proved to be a potent duo in Wilson's absence. Johnson had a big 54-yard gain that sparked a third-quarter touchdown drive, while Bussey had two scores.
The Bison and Penguins have had their tussles over the years and Sunday proved no different.
A 12-yard touchdown pass from Penguins quarterback Mark Waid to Jake Coates pulled YSU within 18-7 heading to the fourth quarter. After losing the time of possession battle in the first half, Youngstown State got back at the Bison in that department after halftime.
NDSU’s first drive in the third quarter did result in a touchdown. Johnson’s 54-yard burst was the key play that culminated in Bussey’s 22-yard touchdown run. At 18-0, the Bison were looking safe with 8 minutes, 29 seconds to play in the third.
Safe turned to a bit edgy after YSU scored and Johnson was stuffed on third-and-1 on NDSU’s second play of the fourth quarter, forcing a punt. But the Bison defense held, sacking Waid on third down, and the Penguins' momentum was averted.
The Bison iced the outcome on their following drive.
Starting from their own 40, a 30-yard jet sweep by wide receiver Christian Watson was the big play in a touchdown drive that ended with another Bussey score. His seven-yard scoot made it 25-7 with 7:10 remaining.
NDSU grabbed an early lead on its second possession of the game. Starting from its own 37-yard line, a mix of short passes and productive runs covered the 63 yards in nine plays, with the big play a 13-yard pass from Noland to tight end Noah Gindorff.
That reached the Penguin 38. Johnson got seven yards on third-and-1 and he finished off the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run. Kicker Jake Reinholz then ran in the the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead with 4:20 to play in the first quarter.
The Bison defense, holding the Penguins to no yards on three running plays inside their 10-yard line, helped produce prime field position. NDSU, starting from the YSU 40-yard line, settled for a 28-yard Reinholz field goal early in the second quarter. NDSU took that 11-0 lead into halftime.
The Bison next play at Southern Illinois (1-1, 0-1 MVFC) at noon Saturday, Feb. 28, in Carbondale with a chance to extend its winning streak to 40 games.
“I’m looking forward to going on the road because I think when we do hit the road it kind of brings us together a little bit and that’s exactly what we need," Entz said.