Three North Dakota State stars opted out of the spring season to prepare for next week’s NFL draft. Others entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Of the players who didn’t get poached from the Football Championship Subdivision power, a few wore street clothes on the sideline Saturday, including linebacker James Kaczor, the Bison’s leading tackler.
NDSU’s offensive line – marred by injuries and departures – was held together by chicken wire.
None of that seemed to matter.
NDSU still had its way with Eastern Washington in the first round of the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota, totaling 422 rushing yards and controlling much of the tempo in 42-20 win over the fast-starting Eagles.
Behind a backfield that included two true freshmen – quarterback Cam Miller (two touchdown passes) and running back Dominic Gonnella (163 rushing yards, two touchdowns – and redshirt freshman speedster Jalen Bussey (143 rushing yards), sixth-ranked NDSU beat the ninth-ranked Eagles for the fourth consecutive time.
“We couldn’t get off the field on defense in the second half,” said EWU coach Aaron Best, who saw NDSU hold possession for 22 minutes of the second half. “We couldn’t continue the momentum (after leading 14-0 in the first quarter), but give credit to the well-coached NDSU outfit. They dictated the tempo and did what they do best, and that’s run the ball.”
The Bison (7-2), who have won eight of the past nine FCS national titles, but appeared to be relatively down this spring, advance to next week’s quarterfinal at No. 2 seed Sam Houston State (7-0). EWU, which finished second in an abbreviated Big Sky Conference, ends its campaign with a 5-2 mark.
Even with a dynamic senior quarterback widely considered to be the best offensive player in the nation and a favorite to win the Walter Payton Award, the Eagles couldn’t rely on Eric Barriere to do everything,
Barriere helped the Eagles score on their first three possessions, but after EWU jumped out to a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Bison began to flip the switch on defense while NDSU’s grind-it-out offense kept Barriere and his stable of decorated receivers glued to the sideline.
“We knew that we’d have to run the football and let their offense get cold and let our defense get rest,” NDSU offensive lineman Cordell Volson said.
Barriere, who rushed for a touchdown and passed to Andrew Boston for another, spearheaded an EWU offense that totaled 307 yards, most of which came before halftime.
A bad sequence late the second quarter began to turn the tide against the Eagles, who had initially carved us NDSU’s secondary.
With a 20-14 cushion, the Eagles reached NDSU’s 23-yard line and were in position to score before All-Big Sky running back Tamarick Pierce, who scored EWU’s first touchdown, went down with a game-ending leg injury after getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
An incomplete pass followed by a 13-yard sack put the Eagles in a fourth-down situation in which kicker Seth Harrison was forced to try a 54-yard field goal.
Harrison missed, and NDSU subsequently scored thanks to ideal field position to take a 21-20 lead into halftime.
When Barriere threw an interception in the third quarter that went off the hands of receiver Anthony Stell, it gave the Bison another opportunity to score, extending their lead to 28-20.
“Huge interception by Dom Jones,” said NDSU coach Matt Entz said, whose team has just five interception this season. “Kind of got our momentum going a little bit,”
The Bison, who went on to sack Barriere five times and hold EWU’s ground game to 61 yards on 32 carries, didn’t look back.
The Eagles were held to 64 yards of offense in the second half and converted on four of their 10 total third-down tries.
“We showed we could compete with them and win this game,” said Barriere, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 246 yards, a touchdown and interception. “It showed in the first half that we could go out there and score anytime we wanted to.
“But football is a game of two halves, so we have to put it all together.”
NDSU also shut down receiver Talolo Limu-Jones (four catches, 38 yards), who led the Big Sky in receiving at more than 120 yards per game.
NDSU, which had two rare regular-season blemishes as it tinkered with its young personnel, operated without 2019 Walter Payton Award winner Trey Lance, a sophomore quarterback expected to hear his named called in the first round of next week’s NFL draft.
But EWU’s defense was hit with its share of transfers and injuries, too, including linebackers Chris Ojoh (transfer) and Ty Graham (injured last week), who would have surely helped the Eagles try to contain NDSU’s young, talented running backs.
EWU’s freshman-heavy defensive line didn’t register a sack of Miller, who experienced his first college start.
Sixth-year player Jack Sendelbach had 13 tackles for the Eagles, playing in their first road playoff game since 2009.
Barriere, who was mum on a potential return to EWU as a sixth-year senior in the fall, lauded NDSU, which he faced two years ago in a 38-24 FCS national title game loss.
“North Dakota State did a good job of capitalizing on our mistakes,” Barriere said.
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