FARGO-North Dakota State football players raced to the northwest corner of the Fargodome as the final seconds ticked off the game clock Saturday afternoon, Sept. 29, to a grab a 75-pound hunk of quartzite.
As the horn sounded, the Bison had reclaimed the Dakota Marker Trophy that had resided in Brookings, S.D., the past two seasons. NDSU quarterback Easton Stick rushed for a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to rally the No. 1-ranked Bison to a 21-17 victory against No, 3-ranked South Dakota State in Missouri Valley Football Conference play before 18,846 fans at Gate City Bank Field.
"Welcome to Missouri Valley football," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said to start his postgame comments.
The Bison (4-0, 1-0 MVFC) remained unbeaten, handing SDSU (2-1, 0-1) its first loss this season. The Jackrabbits had won the previous two Dakota Marker games. Klieman said the victory was for former Bison running back Chase Morlock and the two previous senior classes that didn't win the Marker game in their final seasons.
"I'm smiling for a kid like Chase Morlock right now," Klieman said. "That was for you Chase."
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Stick hugged an NDSU administrator as he walked into the postgame press conference and said, "It's about time." Bison senior linebacker Dan Marlette made two key plays on third-down stops in the fourth quarter. Marlette, from Sioux Falls, S.D., didn't play against SDSU last season due to a knee injury.
"I wasn't able to play last year, so it means even more to me," said Marlette, who had five tackles. "Especially to play with the seniors like we have this year. Obviously I grabbed the rock and held it a little bit."
SDSU took a 17-14 lead after senior running back Isaac Wallace scampered for a 61-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 4 seconds to play in the third quarter. The Jackrabbits scored 10 points in the third quarter to surge into the lead, but the Bison defense stiffened in the final 15 minutes. SDSU went scoreless and had just 48 yards on 10 plays in the fourth quarter. Bison linebacker Jabril Cox finished with eight tackles and two pass breakups.
"Our guys made plays," Klieman said. "Dan Marlette made plays today. And Jabril made plays. Everything is not going to be perfect."
SDSU's last chance came with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, starting at its own 7-yard line after Bison punter Garret Wegner pinned the Jackrabbits deep.
SDSU gained five yards on first down, but was stymied on the next two plays. Senior quarterback Taryn Christion threw a short pass to Wallace on third-and-5, and Marlette made the play on for a 1-yard loss.
"We were going out there with the mentality to score," said Christion, who is 2-1 in Dakota Marker games as the starter. "We wanted to chew up some clock and get into the end zone. We just weren't able to execute."
SDSU never got the ball back after the Bison took over at their own 46-yard line, following a punt, with 3:32 to play. Stick ran for 6 yards on a key third-and-5 play near midfield that kept the Bison drive alive.
"It's a tough place to play. I'm really proud of our team," SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. "We felt we had a chance to win the football game. We had a chance."
Christion tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to give SDSU a 7-0 lead with 5:24 to play in the first quarter. The Jackrabbits then had a chance to build a two-score advantage late in the opening quarter, facing a third-and-7 at the NDSU 10. Bison cornerback Jalen Allison, however, intercepted a Christion pass in the end zone and returned it to the 31-yard line.
"We thought he could have read it a little quicker, but it was a different look," Stiegelmeier said.
"That was huge because those first two drives they were showing us some funky stuff," Marlette said. "Communication wasn't totally there. ... That was so much pressure relieved off the defense."
NDSU converted that turnover into points after tight end Ben Ellefson caught a 17-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7 with 13:14 to play in the second quarter. The Bison took a 14-7 lead with 3:51 to play in the first half after Stick zipped a pass to wide receiver Darrius Shepherd for a 41-yard touchdown.
"We knew it was going to be a four-quarter fight," Klieman said. "I knew it was going to come down to a possession or two. ... We made a couple more plays and we were finally able to get a stop."