FARGO, N.D. —
There are few things more challenging in any sport than to hold the lead on the road against a good team. It’s why road upsets are so rare.
The script is usually the same: The road team takes lead into the stretch run, something goes wrong, and the home team gets momentum and ultimately carries the day.
That seemed to be the path Indiana State was destined to follow against top-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday.
After Johnny Towalid’s second interception return on the second play of the final stanza put the Sycamores up 11, the Bison stormed back. A quick scoring drive resulted in a Brock Jensen touchdown and 2-point conversion to slice ISU’s lead to three.
Tanner Fritschle missed a field goal and NDSU had 5:52 left in the game to try and take the lead. After a pair of pass interference penalties helped NDSU get to the ISU 29, it seemed it wouldn’t take that long.
But the Sycamores didn’t flinch. And the lack of panic in the face of adversity characterized ISU’s 17-14 victory over the defending national champions as much as its forced turnovers did.
The calm in the face of trouble was best exemplified by the defense just after NDSU got to the ISU 29.
ISU’s defense twice had quarterback Jensen confused. He took a shot into the end zone on first down that resulted in an incomplete pass, despite having his tight end open over the middle.
On the next play, Jensen missed his open tight end again and paid a heavier price. ISU safety Larry King picked Jensen off at the 19 and returned it to the 30 with 3:42 left.
“We talk about the defense and their swagger. They have a lot of confidence. The coaches do a great job keeping them confident and understanding what to do to make any corrections and not panic. There’s no panic in us,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
ISU’s players have a way of dealing with the drama of the moment.
“Adversity is going to come every game. We stick together. We tell each, ‘Clear minds … next play.’ We always communicate that to each other,” ISU cornerback Calvin Burnett said.
ISU’s offense had a job to do, too. With 3:42 left, it managed to keep the ball for most of the time left. NDSU didn’t get it back until there was 17 seconds to go.
ISU running back Shakir Bell had respect for NDSU’s passionate fans. Not only had he played in ISU’s previous game in the Fargodome, but he saw the Bison fans in Frisco, Texas, last season when he was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award and NDSU was playing in the FCS championship game.
“I saw NDSU fans down in Texas. They’re amazing. They come in numbers. We could barely hear ourselves think, but we took it one play at a time. We knew we couldn’t give up on ourselves whether we were winning big or losing big. We’re fighters,” Bell said.
• Secondary holds own — ISU was able to force three turnovers against the usually sturdy Jensen and there wasn’t much in the way of gimmick coverages by the secondary.
ISU was able to be opportunistic primarily out of its base defense and coverages.
“Coming into the week, we told our [defensive backs] coach [Mike] Mickens and [defensive coordinator] Jesse Minter to put nine in the box. Leave me and Calvin on an island. He had a belief in us that we could cover anyone in the nation. We came out and I guess we did a good job,” Towalid said.
ISU tends to stick with corners Burnett and Towalid to go with safeties King and Donovan Layne. Mark Sewall spells Layne or joins him in some nickel coverages.
Miles said ISU did different things from different personnel groups, but kept it basic.
Towalid’s first interception of two occurred with 10:31 left in the second quarter and it didn’t hurt the Sycamores’ confidence.
“The first score that Johnny had? That’s all we needed to get our energy up. As soon as he crossed that goal line, we all had our fists up. We were feeling it. To hear the crowd go silent? That’s what we came out to do. The second one [by Towalid] was just icing on the cake,” King said.
• Bell goes down again — For the third consecutive game, Bell had to be helped off the field with an injury.
Bell had to be tended to by the ISU athletic training staff with 2:07 left in the game after he lost two yards on a run. He walked off the field under his own power and had the right side of his neck on ice on the ISU sideline for the remainder of the contest.
“Everything’s fine. I was trying to get to the outside and I hit one of their players and someone came and got me from the back. I was facing down flat to the ground and I landed on my neck wrong,” Bell explained. “I have mobility in my neck. I’m sore, but I’ll be good. My neck felt a lot better when I saw the clock go zero.”
Bell gained 96 rushing yards on 26 carries and had two catches for 15 yards.
• Crazy Saturday — ISU claimed the biggest FCS victim on Saturday, but NDSU had plenty of company in its high-ranked misery.
Four of the top five FCS teams in the Sports Network poll lost.
No. 2 Montana State, also previously unbeaten, fell to No. 6 Eastern Washington 27-24 in a battle of Big Sky Conference stalwarts. In the Colonial Athletic Association, Villanova bumped off No. 3 Old Dominion 38-14. In the Southern Conference, No. 5 Wofford lost 17-9 to No. 7 Georgia Southern.
The rest of the MVFC was far from immune from the wackiness. No. 8 Youngstown State blew a 21-point lead at Illinois State and lost to the Redbirds 35-28. Unranked Southern Illinois likely dealt Northern Iowa’s playoff hopes a death blow with a 34-31 victory in Carbondale. Further down the standings, Missouri State won its first game as it wiped out a 21-point deficit to beat South Dakota 27-24.
South Dakota State has first place in the MVFC to itself after the Jackrabbits defeated Western Illinois 31-10 in Brookings, S.D.
Towalid, Underwood feted by MVC
• ISU defensive back Johnny Towalid and defensive end Connor Underwood received MVFC Player of the Week awards.
Towalid was named Defensive Player of the Week after his two-interception, two-touchdown performance against NDSU.
Underwood was named Newcomer of the Week as he had 10 tackles and sacked NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen twice.