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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 05 2011

Kolpack: No. 1-ranked Bison football team tried and tested in victory against No. 16 Indiana State

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - The South Dakota State game was emotional. Any time you play for something to carry off the field – in that case the Dakota Marker – players take ownership.

The Northern Iowa game was emotional. Any time you play the kingpin of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the players take notice. Add to that, the Bison quarterback hurt his toe and their explosive starting defensive end injured his knee.

So when the Bison hopped on a plane for Terre Haute, prisoners on death row at a federal facility just south of here had more intangibles in their favor.

Then the Bison players had to watch a teammate, Carlton Littlejohn, get carted off on a stretcher and into an ambulance.

A few players were huddling in prayer.

The ol’ ball coach has been around long enough to know that factors outside of the whistles – like Indiana State having a week off to prepare for the Bison and Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium being billed as the biggest ever – come into play.

“All through the years that I’ve coached, those things have been a nemesis for a team,” said head coach Craig Bohl. “You look through college football and these are games on the road against a senior-laden team. They had a week off, we had two emotional games, we were nicked up and we weren’t able to practice at full strength.

“I thought we handled it well.”

Yes, they did – a 27-16 victory that improved the No. 1-ranked team in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision to 9-0. NDSU is 6-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and can clinch a share of the title with one more win.

This is a 9-0 team that won’t beat you with the greatest show on turf. They overcame their potential nemesis factors with sheer fundamentals. They make a poor play once in awhile, but rarely make two in a row.

Two plays stood out on Saturday: Marcus Williams’ 52-yard kickoff return and Colten Heagle’s fourth-down pass breakup.

Williams’ return came after the Sycamores tied it at 10-10 in the first half, and it led to Sam Ojuri’s 7-yard touchdown run and a 17-10 halftime advantage.

Heagle’s play maintained the advantage, and the Bison responded with a field goal on the other end by Ryan Jastram.

“That’s a whole different ballgame,” said ISU head coach Trent Miles. “Two scores are a lot different than one score.”

Heagle was another poster child in this effort. He played with a rather large cast to protect his broken thumb and was reminded a couple of times this week that former standout safety Craig Dahl did the same thing a few years ago.

“I really didn’t notice it,” Heagle said.

Mind over matter, I guess. He led the team in tackles with 11 in addition to his forced turnover.

It was also mind over emergency matter when Littlejohn lay motionless late in the half after a tackle on running back Shakir Bell.

“We’re all like brothers,” said Bison linebacker Chad Willson. “We were all worried about him.”

Word spread quickly, however, to the players that the tingling in his fingers and the neck pain was starting to subside by the time he got in the ambulance. He was transported to a local hospital, but was released and made the team’s charter flight back to Fargo.

“That let us know he’s feeling better,” Willson said.

And the chances of NDSU hosting a first-round playoff game are looking better and better. Miles, in fact, went a little farther.

“That’s the odds-on favorite to win the national championship right there,” Miles said.

The ol’ ball coach in Fargo just got another intangible to deal with.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia