FARGO — North Dakota State used a three-phase approach in the second half Saturday afternoon at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The No. 5-ranked Bison used a big punt return, a forced fumble and timely power runs from quarterback Quincy Patterson to fuel a 34-20 victory against No. 12-ranked Northern Iowa in Missouri Valley Football Conference play before 18,536 fans.
"Super excited about the win, but what I’m even more excited about is I’m not sure where the ceiling is for the group," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "We beat a good football team today and we’re here talking about things we can get better at."
The Bison (5-0, 2-0 MVFC) scored two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second half to start to pull away from the stingy Panthers. NDSU has won eight consecutive games against UNI. The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Patterson completed 11 of 21 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 60 yards and two scores on 12 attempts.
Patterson got a good chunk of his rushing yards on third-down scrambles that he turned into drive-extending first downs.
"Pass rush is important because he can scramble because he’s got the speed to get away to get a third-and-6, can create first-and-10s," UNI head coach Mark Farley said.
Bison punt returner Jayden Price helped spark the third-quarter scoring surge with a 41-yard return to the Northern Iowa 9-yard line. Moments later, Patterson powered into the end zone from 4 yards out to give NDSU a 20-10 lead with 11 minutes, 46 seconds to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing UNI possession, the Bison sacked UNI quarterback Theo Day, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Costner Ching recovered at the Panthers 21.
"I knew if I didn’t scoop it right away I would have to get on it," Ching said "I was pretty excited.”
Four plays later, Patterson lofted a 3-yard touchdown pass off play action to tight end Noah Gindorff for a 27-10 lead with 9:02 remaining in the third quarter.
"You came back in the first half, and nullified the quick start and you quieted the crowd and you had an opportunity to do it in the second half, but then you gave them two quick plays again and had to fight your way back in again," Farley said. "You can’t do that, keep fighting your way back in. You’ve got to get ahead and then have the resilience to stay ahead."
The Panthers slowed the momentum after Day connected with receiver Isaiah Weston for a 68-yard reception that moved the ball to the Bison 5. Dom Williams scored on a 5-yard TD run to slice the Bison lead to 27-17 with 7:39 to play in the third.
The Bison answered with a long, time-consuming drive. Patterson added another 4-yard run to give NDSU a 34-17 lead with 14:09 to play in the fourth quarter. The drive took 16 plays and covered 80 yards and took more than eight minutes off the game clock.
Bison wide receiver Christian Watson had an explosive first half with five receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown. He also had one rush for 16 yards.
Watson gave NDSU an early lead, catching an 85-yard touchdown pass from Patterson that gave the Bison a 7-0 lead with 7:37 to play in the first quarter. On the play, Patterson faked a hand off and lofted the ball deep to Watson who ran past the UNI secondary and caught the ball in stride before coasting into the end zone.
"I was praying that Quincy would let it fly and he did and it was off to the races at that point," Watson said.
Watson added a 38-yard catch on the next NDSU drive that moved the ball to the UNI 11-yard line. That set up a Jake Reinholz 27-yard field goal to give the Bison a 10-0 lead with 3:39 to play in the first quarter.
"Early on, we busted a few coverages right away and I think they got 10 quick ones right out of the gate," said UNI defensive back Korby Sander.
The Panthers countered with 10 points in the second quarter, sparked by a big passing play of their own. Theo Day threw a 44-yard pass to receiver Isaiah Weston to cut the Bison lead to 10-7 with 11:24 remaining until halftime.
After the Bison missed a 40-yard field goal with less than seven minutes to play in the second quarter, the Panthers countered with a Matthew Cook 33-yard field goal to make it 10-10 with three minutes to play in the first half. Weston helped set up that score with a 29-yard reception and Day added a 22-yard scramble that moved the ball to the Bison 20.
The Bison answered with another scoring drive that ended late in the second quarter. Watson had a 23-yard reception that ultimately helped set up a 22-yard Reinholz field goal with 23 seconds to play in the opening half.
NDSU moved the ball inside the UNI 20 on three separate drives and came away with three field-goal attempts and six points off those possessions. Patterson completed 8 of 16 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown in the first two quarters. The Bison had a 241-181 edge in yards at halftime.
In contrast, the Bison parlayed their third-quarter scoring chances into touchdowns to build the cushion they needed. UNI finished with nine penalties for 77 yards.
"I really felt like that was a game we could have won if we locked in and stayed focused if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot," said Weston, who finished with five catches for 181 yards and a touchdown.