3 things we learned: Illinois State falls short against top-ranked North Dakota State

3 things we learned: Illinois State falls short against top-ranked North Dakota State
James Robinson touched the ball on 52 percent of Illinois State's offensive plays in Saturday's 9-3 playoff loss at North Dakota State. (photo courtesy goredbirds.com)

While its defense hung with the top team in the nation, Illinois State's offense wasn't in the same league in Saturday's 9-3 FCS quarterfinal playoff loss to North Dakota State.

The defeat ended the Redbirds' season with a 10-5 record. NDSU (14-0) moved into the national semifinals for the ninth straight year. The Bison will play Montana State Dec. 21 in Fargo.

North Dakota State has won 27 straight games in the FargoDome. Since 2010, the Bison are 34-2 in the playoffs (most of which have been home games).

While the game was played in modern climate-controlled indoor conditions, it had an old-school feel of running plays and staunch defense. The teams ran the ball a combined 83 of 112 plays (74 percent).

Here are three things we learned from Saturday:

1. Illinois State lived up to its reputation on defense.

The Redbirds — ranked as the best in defending the red zone in FCS — limited NDSU to just three field goals.

"We didn't let them reach those big old yellow end zones in here," linebacker Ty DeForest told Craig Bertsche on the ISU radio postgame show.

The last time NDSU has held without a touchdown was Nov. 8, 2014, when Northern Iowa knocked off the Bison 23-3 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The last time NDSU went without a touchdown in a home game occurred Oct. 12, 2002 against rival North Dakota when both teams were Division II opponents.

"We had a good game plan," linebacker Dylan Draka told Bertsche. "They're a good run team and we wanted to stop the run . . . They're a big physical offensive line."

The Redbirds did stop the NDSU attack, holding the Bison to 263 yards of total offense — this to a team averaging 298 rushing yards per game.

Illinois State played the second half without 6-foot-6, 325-pound nose tackle John Ridgeway, who left the game late in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury.

The Redbird defense finished the game with a sack and seven tackles-for-loss. ISU also held NDSU to just 2.97 yards per carry; the Bison entered the game averaging 6.5 per attempt.

2. ISU relied almost exclusively on the run.

As expected, the Redbirds called running plays as they attempted to move the ball and control the clock. In fact, ISU ran the ball 40 of its 48 snaps (83.3 percent).

"(We) forced them to become a little more one-dimensional and didn't let them rely on the run game like they had previously in the playoffs," North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz said in the ESPN postgame interview. "We played really good on third down, got pressure on the quarterback. That was the key for us defensively."

North Dakota State's Matt Biegler attempts to tackle James Robinson. (photo courtesy Tim Sanger, gobison.com)

North Dakota State's Matt Biegler attempts to tackle James Robinson. (photo courtesy Tim Sanger, gobison.com)

Illinois State had just nine first downs in the game and was a paltry 3-for-12 on third down.

All-American tailback James Robinson once again carried the bulk of the Redbird workload. The senior from Rockford rushed for 94 yards on 24 attempts. 

"We had a hard time throwing the football at times," ISU head coach Brock Spack told Bertsche. "We played the way we had to play to have a chance to win."

Illinois State managed just 34 passing yards on 3-of-8 passing by redshirt freshman quarterback Bryce Jefferson, who threw the game's only interception.

"I was hoping we'd get in a game like this — nip and tuck — and pull it out on a short field some way, somehow. It just didn't happen,” Spack said.

Illinois State had one last shot to pull out the victory. The Redbirds took over possession on their own 22-yard line with 1:22 remaining on the clock and no timeouts.

"I knew they (NDSU defenders) were all going to drop back in the zone and it was going to be hard to find them (ISU receivers)," Jefferson told Bertsche. "I was trying to make a move with my feet or get a completion out of bounds."

However, ISU managed just three yards on a Jefferson run and after three incompletons turned the ball over on downs.

3. North Dakota State played conservatively on offense.

Perhaps playing off Illinois State's offensive struggles, the Bison ran the ball 43 times for 128 yards and consistently played for field position.

The Bison won the time of possession battle, 32:27-27:33. NDSU ran 16 more plays than ISU (64-48).

Bison punter Garret Wegner landed three of his six punts inside the Illinois State 20-yard line — and could have had two more but the ball eluded Bison players in position to keep the ball out of the end zone.

NDSU quarterback Trey Lance — the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year — completed just 10-of-21 passes for 135 yards. The 47.6 completion percentage was the lowest of the season for Lance, the redshirt freshman who won the Jerry Rice Award as the top rookie in FCS. 

The Bison committed no turnovers in the game.

News & notes:  Robinson ended the season with a career-best 1,917 yards and finished his career with 4,462 yards, No. 2 all time in ISU history . . . Seven of Robinson's 11 runs in the first half went up the middle; 7 of his 13 runs in the second half went to the left behind center Drew Bones, tackle Drew Himmelman and guard Adam Solomon . . . Illinois State played without freshman receiver Kacper Rutkiewcz and fullback Timothy McCloyn due to injuries . . . A key play in the game occurred in the third quarter when Illinois State cornerback Charles Woods scooped up a loose ball that Spack thought should have been ruled a lateral and appeared on his way to a touchdown. However, the play was ruled an incomplete pass . . . Another key play came with 3:02 left in the game when ISU cornerback Devin Taylor playing very tight coverage was flagged for pass interference on a third-and-11 play that gave North Dakota State a first down. As a result, the Bison managed to run another 100 seconds off the clock. "They weren't calling that all day," Spack said in the radio postgame. "I thought that was a bad time for that call." . . . Illinois State benefited from a noncall in the waning seconds of the first half when TV replays clearly showed ISU's Woods grabbing the jersey of NDSU receiver Christian Watson on a play that was ruled incomplete. Griffin Crosa kicked his third field goal of the game a play later to give the Bison a 9-0 halftime lead . . . Illinois State's lone points came with 2:02 left in the third quarter when Sam Fenlason kicked a 27-yard field goal . . . Draka — a junior from Wheeling — led ISU with eight tackles (one for loss) and a pass breakup . . . Taylor added five tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. 

*Barry Bottino contributed greatly to this story.

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