Despite holding the nation’s No. 1 team to 84 yards of total offense in the second half, the Missouri State Bears fell short in their bid for a comeback victory over North Dakota State Saturday, as the Bison escaped Plaster Field with a 21-17 victory. MSU held the top-ranked Bison to just five first downs after intermission and had several scoring chances late in the game, but could never come all the way back after a key turnover late in the third period set up NDSU’s go-ahead touchdown.

Sam Ojuri rushed for a game-high 118 yards on 24 carries and scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown with 3:35 to play in the third period after a fumbled punt return gave the Bison a short field at the MSU 11-yard line.

In spite of the game-changing turnover, the Bears created multiple scoring opportunities in the final quarter. Austin Witmer’s 44-yard field goal early in the fourth drew MSU to within 21-17 following a 12-play, 48-yard drive. The MSU defense came up with another turnover to set up the potential go-ahead scoring drive when Mike Crutcher hauled in his second interception of the season with 12:04 left in the game, giving the Bears a first down at the NDSU 39.

However, the NDSU defense came up with the first of several critical stops down the stretch on a fourth-and-one at the 30. Travis Beck forced a Mikael Cooper-Falls fumble, and Grant Olson fell on the ball to put a halt to the Bears’ drive. The Bears’ defense forced punts on two-straight NDSU possessions late in the game to give MSU a chance to rally, but the Bison forced a three-and-out with just over seven minutes to play, then came up with a game-clinching turnover on the Bears’ final drive. After Harris ripped off rushes of 21 and 13 yards to give MSU a first down at its own 47, Christian Dudzik intercepted an errant pass at the 1:31 mark to extinguish the Bears’ final hope for a comeback.

Cooper-Falls paced the Bears’ attack for a second-straight week, finishing with 78 rushing yards, 69 of which came in the second half. Caleb Schaffitzel led the MSU defense with his second-straight two-interception game to go along with 10 tackles, and Andrew Beisel registered a game-high 13 stops and one sack. Schaffitzel provided one of the few highlights for the Bears over the first 30 minutes of play, establishing a Missouri State and Plaster Field record with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.

A pair of second-quarter touchdowns and a dominant defensive effort handed the Bison a 14-7 halftime lead, as Brock Jensen’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Smith with 58 seconds left on the clock broke a 7-7 tie and capped a strong second period in which NDSU used a pair of long scoring drives to overcome an early deficit.

North Dakota State dominated both the time of possession and the line of scrimmage in the opening half, out-gaining the Bears 227 to (-18) in total yardage, while eating up 21:35 of clock time to the Bears’ 8:25. The NDSU offense asserted itself as well after a slow start, converting on seven of its final 11 third-down attempts and recording a pair of 14-play drives to take control of the game.

The Bears’ offense struggled throughout the half, rushing for -22 yards on 10 carries and recording just four yards on 3-of-9 passing by Kierra Harris. MSU would not register a first down until the final minute of the half.

Defense was the name of the game early on, as the two offenses combined for just 19 total yards over the first four possessions of the contest. Ojuri provided the first spark for the Bison, breaking free around the left end for a 37-yard run that set up the visitors with a first down at the MSU 7-yard line.

But three plays later with NDSU facing a third-and-goal from the Bears’ 4, Schaffitzel stepped in front of a Jensen pass two yards deep in the end zone to thwart the drive with his fourth interception of the year. The sophomore eluded Jensen’s tackle and raced to the opposite end of the field for the school-record-setting return that put the Bears in front, 7-0, with 3:23 left in the quarter.

North Dakota State got off the mat with a marathon drive to knot the score on its next possession, however. After completing long passes to convert on third-and-long three different times on the drive, Jensen scored from five yards out on a keeper up the middle to cap a 14-play, 65-yard drive that took 6:05 off the clock.

Schaffitzel’s second pick of the game and ensuing 27-yard return set the Bears up at the NDSU 47 with just under nine minutes remaining on the clock. The sophomore safety’s second long return broke a Bears’ single-season record, eclipsing Bill Beckett’s 34-year-old mark of 134 interception return yards.

But the Bison defense, which pushed the Bears back for a net -19 yards in the second quarter, put the clamps on the MSU offense to force a sixth Chris Sullens punt. NDSU then embarked on another 14-play drive, this one chewing up 85 yards over 6:15. Jensen found Smith over the middle for another critical third-down conversion and the go-ahead touchdown with just under a minute left in the half.

The Bears found new life in the second half, marching 62 yards to pay dirt on their first possession after the break to even the score once again. MSU did most of its damage on the ground, rushing seven times for 53 yards, the last 16 of which came on Harris’s third touchdown run of the season after Cooper-Falls carried the Bears into the red zone for the first time all day with a 20-yard rush.

Missouri State appeared poised to swing the momentum further in its favor after stopping the Bison near midfield on their ensuing possession. But a muffed punt return by Sybhrian Berry resulted in the Bears’ first turnover of the game and set the Bison up with a first down at the MSU 11. NDSU would need just two plays to capitalize on the miscue, with Ojuri taking it in from six yards out for a 21-14 Bison advantage.

With the loss, the Bears (3-7, 3-4 MVFC) saw their three-game win streak come to an end, while North Dakota State improved to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in The Valley.

Story courtesy Missouri State Athletics