NORMAL, Ill. -- Every ticket in the stands at Illinois State’s Hancock Stadium was sold this week with North Dakota State coming to town. All that was left for sale were tickets to a couple of hilly, grassy areas behind each end zone.
Fans there were encouraged to bring their own blanket. It turns out, they could have come in handy in the second half if anybody wanted to take a nap.
Nobody in Division I FCS football can put an opposing stadium to sleep better than the Bison.
That’s what happens when a power offense is combined with a very good defense, which was the case again away from Fargo on Saturday afternoon. The Bison opened the defense of their eight-time Missouri Valley Football Conference crown with a dominating 37-3 victory over the Redbirds.
The No. 1-ranked Bison moved to 5-0 this season with their best two victories coming in potential hostile environments. They never got hostile. Not even close.
“It was quite a crowd,” said ISU head coach Brock Spack. “There was not a lot for our fans to cheer for.”
ISU came armed and ready off a bye week and 13,391 fans ready to roll. It was the Bison who rolled. Want to take a crowd out of the game?
Start by taking a 13-0 lead before the first quarter was half over. A fumble recovery by linebacker Aaron Mercadel on ISU’s first possession led to a Bison touchdown, a 35-yard score to a wide-open Noah Gindorff and it was 7-0. Crickets.
On NDSU's next possession, Ty Brooks scored from 53 yards.
“All of a sudden to have a big play early in the game, an explosive play quiets people,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “Getting off the field on third down, you never give the opponent’s fans opportunities to get off their hands and to get involved in the game. Kudos to our kids, they did an outstanding job of just taking care of business.
Then take a 23-3 halftime lead. More crickets.
“It was huge, it was another thing we didn’t have to worry about,” said Bison quarterback Trey Lance of quieting the fans. “We just dominated up front.”
In the third quarter, NDSU marched 80 yards in 11 plays to make it 30-3. Crickets.
It wasn’t until a 64-yard pass from quarterback Brady Davis to receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz that reached the 1-yard line did the stadium resemble any sort of a loud environment.
And that didn’t even work.
Two James Robinson runs lost two yards. On third down, Davis should have been picked off by safety Michael Tutsie. On fourth down, safety James Hendricks batted away a pass near the goal line.
That started sending the fans to either the beer stand on the south end of the stadium or somewhere else in the cities of Normal and Bloomington. This game was a dud for the home crowd.
“It was disappointing we lost the game and had a great crowd,” Davis said. “We would have liked to have a different outcome to get them involved, have it at least to be a close game and have them involved all the way through. I hope they come back because we’ll continue to get better.”
The same thing happened in Newark, Del., last month. The Delaware Blue Hens had the defending champions in their house that was mostly full on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The blue-clad fans never got a chance to make a difference.
NDSU won 47-22 with Delaware’s only offense happening after the game was decided. The Bison playing well on the road is not breaking news to anybody who has followed the team for the past decade.
OK, maybe since 1964. There’s a built-in something in the program that lends itself to crushing performances like it served Illinois State.
Entz attributes a lot of it to the Bison road itinerary, which hasn’t changed in the Division I era. Everything is the same, from the time of arrival at a Friday hotel to the game day procedures.
“The logistics of our road games have been the same in my six years,” Entz said. “We continue to use the same format. The kids know exactly what to expect, when, where and how and why we’re doing something when we go on the road.”
When running back Saybein Clark was stopped on fourth-and-goal with 1:08 left in the game — it was the obligatory run up the middle — a few fans were heard yelling in appreciation. It was that quiet with the exception of a pocket of fans in the southwest corner of the stadium.
Nobody can turn a stadium into crickets like the Bison.
And nobody else can make a blanket in the end zone into a multi-use item on football game days.
“It’s a business trip,” said Bison receiver Christian Watson. “It’s the same thing as being at home, we have to get things done no matter the atmosphere. We have to handle our business.”