IOWA CITY, Ia. — The fourth quarter began with North Dakota State missing a field goal and ended with the Bison making one of the biggest in program history.
But it was what happened in between those plays that reduced the soldout crowd in Kinnick Stadium to a murmur. The visitors kicked No. 11 Iowa all over the field for the final 15 minutes to earn a 23-21 win Saturday.
North Dakota State, an FCS powerhouse, has been victorious the past six times it has faced an FBS opponent. And there’s no mystery why.
“They obviously know how to win and know how to finish games,” Iowa guard Keegan Render said. “They outplayed us today, so we got what we deserved.”
The Bison (3-0) got a quick jump on Iowa, scoring a first-quarter touchdown when linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker looped around Iowa offensive tackle Cole Croston and burrowed in to quarterback C.J. Beathard just as he released a pass. The football floated to NDSU linebacker M.J. Stumpf, who returned it 21 yards for the game’s first score.
“We took the fight to them right away in the game and that’s what we wanted to do,” Stumpf said.
It was the first time Iowa (2-1) had trailed this season. The next time was on the game’s final play, a 37-yard field goal by Cam Pedersen.
The Hawkeyes found success in the passing game in the first half, with Beathard hitting Riley McCarron for a 30-yard score to tie it and Matt VandeBerg from 14 yards out to take a 14-7 lead at intermission.
But that advantage masked two trends that were evident early. Iowa was unable to run the football the way it normally can, with just 43 ground yards at halftime. And the Bison were keeping themselves off the scoreboard with mistakes at crucial times, not necessarily because of anything the Hawkeye defense was doing.
North Dakota State moved the ball into Iowa territory five times in the first half with no points, thanks to two errant snaps and one poor decision by quarterback Easton Stick, who was intercepted by Hawkeye safety Brandon Snyder while targeting a receiver who was standing out of bounds.
Once the Bison got out of their own way, Iowa decided to follow suit. NDSU racked up 203 rushing yards in the second half, tying the score in the third quarter on a King Frazier 1-yard run.
The Hawkeyes regained the lead when Beathard and VandeBerg connected again, this time from 9 yards.
Then came the fourth quarter. Iowa ran seven plays, picking up its lone first down by virtue of an NDSU penalty. Both possessions ended with Beathard laying on the ground, once covering a bad snap and once after being plowed over by a blitzing Robbie Grimsley.
The Bison took advantage, churning out rushing yards and chewing up the clock. Their first drive consumed 8 minutes and 39 seconds and traveled 80 yards in 15 plays. It included a conversion on fourth-and-2.
Finally, Stick found a wide-open Chase Morlock in the end zone for a 7-yard score. It was only the second pass completion of the drive, as the Bison dominated on the ground.
“Good teams have identities and they believe in what they do. Most importantly, the players believe in what they do,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I didn't see a weak spot out there. They're really a good football team."
How confident was NDSU, winners of the past five FCS national titles? Coach Chris Klieman opted to try a two-point conversion with 3:41 left in the game, going for the lead instead of the tie, sensing that the Hawkeyes were out of gas. After an Iowa timeout, Stick’s pass fell incomplete.
It didn’t matter. The Bison had the ball back two minutes later. Stick ran for 29 yards on the first play and NDSU was quickly in field-goal range.
“A game like this, the physical nature, it does eventually wear on you,” Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie said. “Nobody is ever going to use that as an excuse. They were tired also and they were able to pull it out at the end.”
It was Iowa’s first loss against an FCS team. But NDSU is no ordinary FCS team.
“We told them all week long that we belong. We belong in the game; we belong in the spotlight,” Klieman said. “When you get into a four-quarter, 60-minute game, don’t bet against the guys in that locker room. They know one thing, and that’s how to close and how to win.”