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Rob Beer, Published November 09 2013

Littlejohn steps in for injured Olson

FARGO – North Dakota State linebacker Carlton Littlejohn got thrown into the middle of things less than a minute after halftime Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

On the third play from scrimmage of the second half, senior middle linebacker Grant Olson suffered a serious knee injury during NDSU’s 28-10 victory against Illinois State.

Littlejohn responded.

The junior from Minneapolis moved to the middle of the defense from his usual spot at outside linebacker and finished with a career-high 16 tackles, including 10 in the second half.

“I thought Carlton did a nice job coming in and taking his place there,” Bison head coach Craig Bohl said. “We shuffled some guys around and Esley Thorton came in and did some good things.”

Thorton played outside linebacker, moving into Littlejohn’s position.

Already playing without injured All-America cornerback Marcus Williams, NDSU held Illinois State to 54 rushing yards and 28 passing yards in the second half.

“I felt like the defense got a little more motivated,” Littlejohn said following Olson’s injury.

Bohl said Littlejohn has taken some reps at middle linebacker, which leaves junior Travis Beck and Thorton, who finished with three tackles, manning the outside spots.

“You have to look at your best combination of players and what we’re doing in certain situations,” Bohl said.

Special teams key

The Bison got off to a quick start after John Crockett returned the opening kickoff 52 yards. After that, NDSU’s special teams play had a little bit of everything.

“A mixed bag,” Bohl said. “We have to clean some things up.”

Christian Dudzik brought back another kickoff for 36 yards early in the second quarter, which led to a Zach Vraa touchdown catch and a 21-7 lead.

But Dudzik also made a decision to try to field a deep punt just one play after Olson was injured.

With the ball bouncing around his own 20, Dudzik tried to scoop up the ball among several Redbirds defenders. The ball got away and was recovered by Illinois State at the 18.

The Redbirds eventually reached the Bison 5, but two incomplete passes led to a 22-yard field goal by Nick Aussieker to cut the Bison lead to 21-10.

“The muffed punt was pretty scary,” Bohl said. “At that time I thought we had stabilized the momentum. I thought our defense did a great job holding them to a field goal.”

Bison kicker Adam Keller was 0-for-2 on field goals, missing from 48 (wide right) and having a 52-yard try blocked in the third quarter.

Bohl said the Redbirds were able to get a good push up the middle as NDSU tried to expand on its 21-10 lead.

“That was frustrating,” Bohl said. “We knew that was a bit of a gamble but you look at the position on the field and I felt like it was worth a crack at it.”

Said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack: “There were lots of big plays on special teams. We felt like we had to at least get a tie in that area and I wouldn’t say that’s the case for us.”

Odds and ends

Illinois State redshirt freshman QB Blake Winkler got off to a decent start in the loud Fargodome, passing 4 of 5 for 32 yards in the first quarter. He finished 12 of 21 for 72 yards. … North Dakota State is now 13-1 coming off a bye week under Bohl. … Crockett finished with 158 all-purpose yards. … Bison wide receiver Ryan Smith did not see action, but Bohl said he could have played if necessary … NDSU improved to 35-2-2 in Harvest Bowl games.

Readers can reach Forum Online Editor Rob Beer at (701) 241-5506