The nearly-empty Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome was almost completely empty at around 6 p.m. on Saturday. In the northeast corner of the end zone, North Dakota State assistant coach Randy Hedberg took a photo with all of his Bison quarterbacks.
Whether all of them will be back in the spring remains to be seen, specifically No. 5. The possible swan song for Trey Lance wasn’t one to write home about - he was 15 of 30 passing for 149 yards. And, gasp, put this name down in Bison history: Nick Nakwaasah. The Central Arkansas defensive back became the first player in an opposing uniform to pick off Lance in his 19-game Bison career.
If I were Nakwaasah, I would have taken that football on the plane for the ride back to Conway, Ark., and tuck it away for safekeeping. It could be worth something someday, like Roger Maris’ 61st home run that Sal Durante caught in right field in 1961 at Yankee Stadium.
OK, maybe not that valuable. But you get the picture. Lance threw 307 passes before an opponent caught one.
“Nobody’s perfect, everything I think with Trey is because of last season,” said Bison fullback Hunter Luepke. “He came up to us after that and he was positive and that helped us move forward.”
Lance wasn’t sharp. He volunteered that after the game, even when given an out of it being NDSU’s first game after several many weeks of practice. And even in a full dome the crowd is silent when the Bison have the ball.
“I don’t think it was rust,” Lance said. “I think I missed throws, we missed plays we should have made. I wouldn’t attribute it to rust or no fans or anything like that. It came down to playmaking, the offensive line did a great job and I have to make more plays.”
When it was obvious that NDSU wasn’t going to win this game by putting bubble wrap on their prized quarterback, he was tough to beat. He was unstoppable in the last half of the fourth quarter when it mattered the most.
Here’s what good quarterbacks do: They don’t have to wait until the final play of the game to win a game. He led a seven-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a well-executed 23-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Luepke that gave the Bison a 32-28 lead with 7:35 remaining in the game.
After the Bison held the Bears on three plays, here’s what great quarterbacks do: They put the game away.
The Bison took over at their 33-yard line with 5:42 left. An 11-yard pass to tight end Noah Gindorff got a first down on second-and-9. The play that ended it for UCA came on third-and-4, a 15-yard sideline bullet to receiver Braylon Henderson that reached the Bears’ 34.
“You see the connection and the trust he has with all the skill kids,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “To make those throws in the last five to seven minutes of the game was excellent for him.”
Luepke put it away on a 13-yard touchdown with 1:51 remaining.
It ended one weird Bison game experience.
At least in the first two quarters we got the answer to the question that was asked for a couple of weeks: What’s more of an advantage, having played three games (UCA) or having three opponent games on film and not playing one game (NDSU)?
The Bears played at a faster game speed, especially on defense. Lance was 6 of 16 passing for 46 yards and the Bison offense generally looked disjointed.
“We’re not going to make excuses, we were ready to play,” said linebacker James Kaczor.
It took two plays to look jointed on the first possession of the second half. Lance hit tight end Josh Babicz for 21 yards on the first play to his 46-yard line.
After taking off the gloves and running the ball late in the first half, Lance scored on the next play for a 54-yard touchdown and the Bison quickly led 18-6.
NDSU had the look of a team that shook off the first half cobwebs and was ready for a second-half onslaught.
Not so much.
Two touchdowns in three minutes quickly put the Bears ahead and the only roaring in the dome was the UCA sideline and its spattering of fans behind its bench.
The Bears took that advantage to the fourth quarter. The last time the Bison trailed while holding up their four fingers signalling the fourth quarter was in 2018 at Northern Iowa.
Those home destructions over the years of Southland Conference teams was a thing of the past.
“I think the cool thing about NDSU and our offense is we don’t stress about all that stuff,” Luepke said. “We stay level-minded and cool. There wasn’t any pressure at all. We had to score, but ... it's just another situation for us.”