FARGO — North Dakota State safety Dawson Weber saved the day Friday night.
The senior safety’s interception with less than 90 seconds remaining helped the Bison preserve a 35-32 victory against Incarnate Word in the NCAA Division I FCS semifinals before 12,569 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
“The ball seemed like it was in the air for 30 minutes,” said Weber, who finished with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
NDSU earned a spot in the FCS title game for the 10th time in the past 12 seasons and another trip to Frisco, Texas. The Bison fell behind by 16 points in the first quarter before rallying for victory. Bison running back Kobe Johnson rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns on 15 attempts.
“We’re going back to where we should be,” Weber said.
“Unbelievable resolve by our football team,” added Bison head coach Matt Entz. “Grit.”
The Cardinals and the Bison took turns seizing the momentum throughout the four quarters.
“Two powerhouses throwing blows back and forth,” said Incarnate Word head coach GJ Kinne.
Incarnate Word quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. completed 30 of 46 passes for 282 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 21 attempts.
The Cardinals moved the ball to the Bison 33-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, but the 6-foot-2 Weber elevated and intercepted Scott’s deep heave at the NDSU 18-yard line with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining. The Bison ran out the clock from there.
“It didn’t go our way this time,” said Scott, who is one of the top three finalists for the Walter Payton Award. “I can’t make that throw as a veteran. That’s on me.”
For a second consecutive season, the Bison had a dramatic late interception to help seal the victory in the semifinals. A year ago, cornerback Destin Talbert had a one-handed interception in the end zone — with around three minutes to play in the fourth quarter — to help preserve a 20-14 victory against James Madison.
“Knowing that Christmas is canceled now is very exciting,” Weber said with the FCS title game scheduled for Jan. 8 in Frisco.
Johnson scored on a 49-yard touchdown burst for a 24-16 lead with 12 minutes, 56 seconds to play in the third quarter. That capped a 74-yard drive that took four plays on the opening drive of the second half and set the stage for a frenetic final 30 minutes.
The Cardinals cut the Bison lead to 24-22 on Scott’s 1-yard TD run with 7:05 remaining in the third quarter. NDSU stopped the 2-point conversion attempt. The drive covered 75 yards and lasted 15 plays.
Scott added a 1-yard TD run on UIW’s next drive for a 29-24 lead with 2:59 to play in the third quarter. That 61-yard drive took five plays.
Bison kicker Griffin Crosa countered with a career-long 47-yard field goal to trim the UIW lead to 29-27 with 13:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. Cardinals kicker Carson Mohr booted a 41-yard field goal for a 32-27 lead with 9:38 to play in the fourth quarter.
“I’m proud of our guys and how hard they fought,” Kinne said.
Johnson ripped off a 31-yard TD run for a 35-32 lead with 8:11 remaining. The 65-yard drive took three plays. Tight end Joe Stoffel caught the 2-point conversion from receiver Braylon Henderson off a jet sweep. That score held up with the help of Weber’s late-game heroics.
“That is as good a team offensively as I’ve seen,” Entz said of Incarnate Word.
UIW scored on its opening drive. Receiver Darion Chafin caught a 1-yard pass from Scott to give the Cardinals a 7-0 lead with 10:37 remaining in the first quarter. That capped a 75-yard drive that took 10 plays.
UIW continued to roll on its next drive, taking a 14-0 lead after a Jarrell Wiley 15-yard touchdown with 7:42 to play in the first quarter. That drive covered 85 yards, took six plays and lasted less than 60 seconds.
The Cardinals built a 16-0 lead after a safety with 7:33 remaining in the first quarter. NDSU started the drive at its own 2 and UIW tackled Bison running back TK Marshall in the end zone on the first play of that drive.
“I think that’s really what boosted us,” said Bison quarterback Cam Miller, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts. “People didn’t get down on each other when we were down 16-0.”
Crosa hit a 27-yard field goal to cut the Cardinals lead to 16-3 with 2:15 to play in the first quarter. UIW muffed a punt that NDSU covered at the 2-yard line, but a Bison holding penalty took a Marshall TD run off the board.
Johnson added a 4-yard touchdown run to cut the UIW lead to 16-10 with 4:46 to play in the first half. That capped a 93-yard drive that took eight plays. Miller helped set up the score with a 35-yard run that moved the ball to the Cardinals 41.
Miller scored on a 2-yard run to give the Bison a 17-16 lead with 47 seconds to play in the first half. Jayden Price helped set up that score with a 41-yard punt return that moved the ball to the UIW 17.
The Cardinals finished with 539 yards on 94 plays, but UIW had four turnovers while NDSU had no turnovers.
“It’s hard to win games like that,” said Bison defensive end Spencer Waege of allowing more than 500 yards on 94 plays. “Bend don’t break.”