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Bison clinch MVFC championship outright with win at snowy Illinois State

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NORMAL, Ill. -- No. 4-ranked North Dakota State wasn’t in the sharing mood Saturday afternoon.

The Bison rushed for 267 yards and three touchdowns on a cold, rainy, snowy, windy day at Hancock Stadium. The ground game helped NDSU earn a 20-7 victory against Illinois State to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship outright before an announced crowd of 7,664 fans.

The Bison (10-1, 7-1 MVFC) earned their first outright conference crown since 2013. NDSU has earned at least a share of the MVFC title seven consecutive times.

“To be able to win this conference outright is quite a feat,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “We’ve been beat up, just like everyone else in the league has been beat up, but our guys always found a way.”

The Bison earned the automatic bid from the Valley for the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs. The 24-team field is scheduled to be announced at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU, and the Bison are expected to earn a top-4 seed and be placed as high as No. 2. Defending FCS champion and undefeated James Madison is expected to be the top seed.

Klieman was asked if he thought the Bison deserved one of the top two seeds.

“Who knows? I would think so,” Klieman said. “We will see how it plays out, but I sure hope so.”

The Bison took control in the third quarter by taking advantage of two Illinois State miscues. The Redbirds roughed NDSU punter Jackson Koonce on fourth-and-7 near midfield with the game tied at 0-0. That moved the Bison to the ISU 33-yard line.

“That was a big play,” said Redbirds head coach Brock Spack. “We still have a chance to win the game after that, we just lose the momentum. … I told our team the first team that flinches is going to be the one that wins the game. We kind of flinched on that.”

Six plays later, the Bison found the end zone. Junior quarterback Easton Stick capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run that gave NDSU a 7-0 lead with 8 minutes, 32 seconds to play in the third quarter.

On the ensuing drive, Bison freshman Jabril Cox added another game-changing play. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound linebacker intercepted Redbirds quarterback Jake Kolbe and returned the ball 32 yards to the ISU 25. Kolbe made a tackle that prevented Cox from returning the interception for a score.

Four plays later, Bruce Anderson powered into the end zone for a 13-0 lead with 3:56 to play in the third quarter. The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Anderson rushed for a team-high 95 yards on 22 attempts in a game where both offenses struggled to move the ball for most of the afternoon. Both teams gained less than 70 yards in the first half.

“We didn’t let the elements stop us,” Anderson said.

The Redbirds cut the Bison lead to 13-7 after a James Robinson 11-yard touchdown run with 3:21 to play in the fourth quarter.  ISU didn’t complete its first pass of the game until less than five minutes to play in the game.

Anderson came up with another key play on the following possession. Stick ripped off a 56-yard run on a second-and-3 play, but fumbled at the ISU 12. Anderson, from Ruskin, Fla., made a sliding recovery at the 1-yard line to retain possession.

“Great play by Bruce, but we always talk about playing all the way to the whistle,” Klieman said. “I thought Bruce ran really, really hard today and he was a big difference-maker for us.”

One play after Anderson’s recovery, Stick scored on a 1-yard run to give the Bison a 20-7 lead with 2:41 remaining. The game started with rain that turned to sleet and eventually snow near the end of the first half. Temperatures were in the high-30s for most of a blustery afternoon.

“That was as a tough of conditions as I’ve coached in,” Klieman said.