AROUND THE FCS — Big Sky schools (and Dixie State) opened the truncated 2021 spring football season Saturday, the same day that No. 1 North Dakota State saw its school-record 39-game winning streak snapped.
The top-ranked Bison fell to Missouri Valley rival Southern Illinois, 38-14 for NDSU's first loss since 2017 and worst loss since joining Division I in 2004. The Bison are now 2-1 and 1-1 in Missouri Valley play, tied with the Salukis in the conference standings.
Elsewhere in the FCS top 25, Dixie State made good use of its Division I debut with a dominant road upset of fellow FCS newcomers and Western Athletic Conference (non-football) rival Tarleton State, which drew a No. 22 national ranking following a rout of FBS New Mexico State in El Paso, Texas.
But that didn't scare the Trailblazers, who have been waiting for Saturday for 500 days — or at the very least, that's how long it's felt.
"They came out ready to go," Dixie State coach Paul Peterson said. "Before the game started, I talked to our team a bit about confidence. We were planning on quite a few young guys playing, and I just told them to follow the leaders.
"The boys worked tremendously hard … and guys were making some big plays all over the field. This big victory was definitely earned."
Dixie State 26, No. 22 Tarleton State 14
Former BYU quarterback Kody Wilstead threw for 350 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another score as Dixie State opened their Division I account with an upset win over the Texans.
Former Taylorsville High and Snow College tight end Chase Hess caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown to lead the Trailblazers (1-0), and freshman Quali Conley ran for 68 yards and a score.
Wilstead threw for 191 yards in the first half, and Conley scored on a 1-yard plunge on Dixie State's second possession to go up 7-0 early. The Trailblazers added a 37-yard field goal moments later, and held the Texans under 100 yards of offense with two interceptions until Ryheem Skinner's score on fourth-and-1 with 4:06 left in the half.
Wilstead found Hess with a 43-yard strike, and Dixie State took a 17-7 halftime lead. The Pine View product stretched the lead to 23-17 with a 1-yard scoring plunge to open the half, capping off a 46-yard toss to Deven Osborne downed inside the one.
Kaylon Horton returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for Tarleton, but Isaac Fotu's sack on fourth-and-two helped the Trailblazers keep the nine-point edge heading into the final stanza. But the visitors didn't panic then, either.
"He was quicker than snot, man," Peterson quipped. "(Kicker James Baird) kicked a great kick, but it was a low line drive and that kid motored down the field. He hit a great burst of speed, and he was gone. It was a great play."
Still, this wasn't a game where Dixie State got lucky and held on. The Trailblazers put on a dominant performance in a long-awaited welcome to the Football Championship Subdivision — and it started on defense.
Darrius Nash had a team-high 10 tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup, and Dixie State forced five turnovers, including scoring 13 points off those takeaways, six tackles for loss and four sacks to stymie the Texans (1-2).
The Trailblazers averaged 6.0 yards per play, held Tarleton to 4.5, and put up 445 yards of offense with 30:46 time of possession. A day that started with Dixie State being turned over on downs in seven plays ended with the 'Blazers' defense finishing with three fumbles, two interceptions, two turnovers on downs, and five punts on defense.
"Our defense has been doing that to us for 500 days now. It was great seeing them do it to everyone else," Wilstead said with a laugh. "When we were coming off (after the first series), the defense told us they were getting us the ball back. It was awesome to see."
Peterson even admits he simply turning to defensive coordinator Tyler Almond and just watching him work. The second-year coordinator who came to Dixie State after spending time at Christian Brothers High in Sacramento put in an "awesome game plan," and the Trailblazers rode it from there, the head coach added.
"They had some great weapons on the outside, and we neutralized them," Peterson said. "Any time you can get a sudden change like that five times, it's really good. We were disruptive. They were taking some chunks in the run game, and we just played two high safeties and forced them to be patient. They got close to some scores, and we had some really good turnovers. I think our defense did a really good job of locking them down in the turnovers."
It also made the offense run better. After the Texans pulled within nine, the offense didn't calm down. They just saw what the defense was doing, and followed their lead.
"It definitely helped us feel like we could play it safe," Wilstead added. "We didn't need the big shots, or the extra risks; we knew we just had to flip the field for them.
"It was comforting to know we didn't have to try to force anything."
Keondre Wudtee connected with Coleman Owen with a 2-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game to help Northern Arizona rally by Grand Canyon rival Southern Utah, 34-33, in the opening game of the Big Sky's 2021 spring season for both teams Saturday afternoon in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Sophomore starter Justin Miller threw for 288 yards and five touchdowns for SUU (0-1), and Landen Measom caught 10 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Brandon Schenks added 74 yards and three touchdowns for the Thunderbirds, who jumped out to a 13-2 lead and never trailed by more than a touchdown.
Wudtee completed 17 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns for the Lumberjacks, and Kam Hightower had two tackles, a pass breakup and a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown to lead NAU's defense.
Miller threw for 140 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in the first half. The Thunderbirds jumped out to an early lead before Kam Hightower picked off an errant throw by Miller and returned it 58 yards for the Lumberjacks' opening score.
on. a. dime. pic.twitter.com/Q2nC9bEkb5— SUU Football 🏈 (@SUUFB) February 27, 2021
But Miller responded with an 8-yard strike to Brandon Schenks en route to a 20-15 halftime advantage.
NAU took its first lead on the third play of the second half, a 55-yard scoring strike from Keondre Wudtee to Stacy Chukwumezie on broken coverage. But Miller pulled the Thunderbirds back in front with his fifth touchdown, a 3-yard score to Measom to open the fourth quarter.
The Lumberjacks forced one final possession with a fourth-down stop at the 19-yard line, with two timeouts and 53 seconds left. NAU drove all the way to the 11-yard line on Matt Kempton's 20-yard grab with 11 seconds left.
That set up the final moments, including one final play from the 2-yard line after a pass interference call on Southern Utah with 2 seconds left.
Former American Fork standout Bronson Barron threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns, and Alta High grad Josh Davis added 175 total yards and two scores as the Wildcats opened the season by pulling away from the Bengals in Pocatello, Idaho.
After a slow start and a 14-0 halftime lead, Davis scored on a 64-yard sprint and Dontae McMillan added a 3-yard plunge to cap a 28-point third quarter for the Wildcats (1-0).
McMillan finished with 51 yards and two scores for the Wildcats, who piled up 638 yards of offense, including 289 on the ground.