Southern Illinois kicker Thomas Kinney boomed a 47-yard field goal with 7:39 remaining in the first half Saturday to give the Salukis a 10-0 lead over No. 1-ranked North Dakota State. The score, however, was not the statistic that stood out most at that point in the contest.
Instead, it was this lopsided statistic in favor of Southern Illinois that had TV announcers Brian Shawn and Lee Timmerman -- and the social media world -- speaking gloomily of the Bison's performance: 17 minutes, 41 seconds to 4 minutes, 40 seconds. That was the time of possession, a landslide to Dale Lennon's club.
The Bison offense had failed on a handful of third-down conversions and quarterback Brock Jensen was missing receivers by just a hair. NDSU couldn't get anything going offensively and the much-vaunted defense was giving up yards.
Was this to be the day when the mighty Bison saw their third straight march to Frisco, Texas, interrupted by hiccup in Carbondale, Ill.?
If you believed that -- and, yes, I predicted Southern Illinois was going to win this game -- you are looking foolish right about now.
Billy Turner (Photo: NDSU)The final score was NDSU 31, Southern Illinois 10 and it wasn't even that close. After a late score on an underthrown 55-yard Jensen touchdown pass to Zach Vraa pulled the Bison within 10-7 at halftime, it was all NDSU in the second half. Perhaps it is time Lennon turns his visor around the right way. The cute ploy might've loosened up his team enough to beat overrated South Dakota State and pull a nice upset at Northern Iowa, but the Salukis were outclassed in the final 30 minutes by a far superior NDSU team.
]Here is what those who doubted NDSU's chances of winning forgot: Yes, this two-time championship Bison team is built on defense, but the mammoth and talented offensive line allows the beautiful luxury of patience. Even when the Bison were behind 10-0 and had nothing to show offensively, there was no panic or sense of urgency or change in NDSU's demeanor. This club just does what it does, not allowing an early deficit or the sense that things aren't going well to alter its game plan. If you could measure the Bison's collective pulse, it does not quicken when the team falls behind.
The credit goes to the behemoths up front -- the starters are all-world Billy Turner, Zack Johnson, Josh Colville, Tyler Gimmestad and Joe Haeg -- who allow NDSU to eventually pound opposing defenses into submission.
They are the Bison's Mount Rushmore. On this Saturday, it was a literal nickname.
Southern Illinois' defense entered the game allowing about 85 yards rushing per game. By the time Turner and Co. were finished, the Bison rushed for a season-high 331 yards and the Salukis' defensive line looked like it wanted to play running time. It was NDSU's most dominant performace up front since ... the title game in January against Sam Houston State? Or the second half against Kansas State back in August?
John Crockett went for a career-high 171 yards and 3 touchdowns and Sam Ojuri added 137 yards and the Bison stuck to their tried and true formula of defense and physically punishing ball control to dominate another road game.
The question is: Why would I or anybody else doubt this offensive line after watching it pound defenses time and time again?
We only need to look at Kansas State, when NDSU trailed 21-7 with 9:58 left in the third quarter yet failed to show any glimmer of doom. The Bison stuck with their game plan and the big boys up front hammered the Wildcats' overmatched defensive line the rest of the way, capped by the epic 18-play, 80-yard, 8 1/2-minute drive that ended in the winning TD.
Tyler Gimmestad (Photo: NDSU)
Or we could have remembered a couple of weeks ago when a talented Northern Iowa team took a 23-10 advantage with 3:29 remaining in the third quarter at the Fargodome. The Bison calmly rallied and drove 76 yards in 8 plays for the late winning TD in that game.
The most prescient call made during the TV broadcast Saturday came in the third quarter when analyst Lee Timmerman pointed out that NDSU's offensive line was crushing Southern Illinois nose tackle Raysean Golden on every play. On cue, Crockett ripped off a 26-yard TD run on the next snap, a play on which Golden was sealed so tightly by Colville and Gimmestad you couldn't have gotten him wet with a Gatorade bath.
The Bison defense rightly gets much credit for the team's success. Jensen, Vraa, Ojuri, Crockett and Ryan Smith steal most of the headlines and TV highlights.
But it is this collection of magnificent blockers, this Mount Rushmore, that allows NDSU coach Craig Bohl to say things like, "Our guys know it is a 60-minute game and we play that way." Bohl told TV interviewer Jamal Spencer that Saturday afternoon. Time and time again we see it in the patience shown by NDSU.
(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)