As first impressions go, North Dakota State’s football team made a bunch of good ones on Saturday afternoon.
Matt Entz, who took over as Bison coach after Chris Kleiman left for Kansas State following NDSU’s seventh FCS national championship in the past eight years, had a successful debut in a 57-10 rout of Butler at Target Field.
The first North Dakota State football game at the Twins’ ballpark was a rollicking success for Bison Nation, too, with an announced attendance of 34,544. Though that number didn’t match the 37,355 that St. Thomas and St. John’s drew at Target Field in 2017, the Bison fans came to party and certainly accomplished that.
But it was the debut of Bison quarterback Trey Lance that stole the show.
Lance, a redshirt freshman from Marshall, Minn., completed 10 of 11 passes for 185 yards and four touchdowns and added 116 rushing yards, including TD runs of 61 and 33 yards. In the process, the dual-threat QB showed that he might fit right in with the group of Bison national title-winning signal-callers that includes Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz and Easton Stick.
“I didn’t get touched in the pocket at all,’’ Lance said. “… When I don’t get touched and can sit back there, it’s a great feeling.’’
Granted, the two-time defending FCS champion Bison were playing a Butler program that was 4-7 last year, but outgaining an opponent 349-67 in the first half showed NDSU’s dominance. How efficient was the Bison offense? Through three quarters it faced only four third-down situations and converted three of them.
Of course, NDSU’s defense was its usual stout self, limiting the Bulldogs to 2.5 yards per play in the first half, when the game’s issue was decided. Butler’s only touchdown was scored by its defense.
“I just was in the locker room, and there’s a lot of young guys in there who became Bison today,’’ Entz said. “… I love the way our kids started fast.’’
The No. 1-ranked Bison were aggressive from the coin toss, which they won and took the ball. They promptly marched down the field with an eight-play, 90-yard drive. Lance’s 33-yard TD run up the middle made it 6-0, and kicker Jake Reinholz took a pitch and waltzed in for a two-point conversion.
North Dakota State’s defense set the tone on Butler’s first play from scrimmage, with end Derrek Tuszka tattooing Bulldogs running back Kavon Samuels for a 1-yard loss. Butler went three-and-out, a common theme.
The Bison quickly made it 15-0. After a 21-yard run by Ty Brooks, Lance threw deep for wide receiver Phoenix Sproles, who made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch as he entered the end zone for a 47-yard TD play.
“Trey slung it out there perfectly,’’ said Sproles, a sophomore and former Cooper standout. “I just had to go out there and get it.’’
As NDSU’s defense took control, the offense benefited with short fields. Lance’s 15-yard connection with a wide-open tight end Josh Babicz made it 22-0 with 11:02 left in the second quarter.
“He must’ve had a deal with the tight ends. … Every time I looked up, they were catching a touchdown,” Entz said of Lance, who also tossed a beautiful 26-yard TD pass to tight end Noah Gindorff with 5:24 left in the half and a 3-yard scoring strike to Babicz that made it 36-0 only 45 seconds before intermission.
That last first-half touchdown was set up by free safety James Hendricks’ interception of Butler QB Sam Brown at the Bulldogs 31 and Lance’s 26-yard quarterback draw to the 13 on third-and-18.
Though Butler would get a field goal and a fumble return TD in the third quarter, the Bison answered with a 36-yard TD run by Brooks and a 61-yard sweep by Lance that made it 50-10.
That carry ended Lance’s day, an exclamation point on an impressive debut and a festive afternoon.
“That was incredible,” said Hendricks, a senior from Bemidji. “… We just looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and tried to enjoy every second of it.”