Football: Hager still shy of 100th career win

Football: Hager still shy of 100th career win

It looked like Northeastern was getting the lucky bounce in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against North Dakota State. But whatever luck the Huskies had would soon belong to the Bison, who beat NU 23-10 in Fargo, N.D.

The Huskies looked like the team to beat in the first quarter. Sophomore tackle Jason Vega recovered a Bison fumble that lead to a 31-yard field goal from freshman Mat Johnson.

The Huskies were in possession of a 3-0 lead, and, more importantly, the legs of star junior tailback Maurice Murray. Both would be short-lived.

Murray left the game after the first quarter with tendinitis in his knee, and the Bison went on an 11-play, 53-yard march downfield to go ahead 7-3.

The loss of Murray, who ran for 980 yards a season ago, was devastating to the Husky offense.

“It would have been good to have Maurice for four full quarters,” said head coach Rocky Hager. “He’s the workhorse of the offense and he was just getting into the groove when he got hurt and things never got back on track.”

Murray is expected to be ready for the Atlantic-10 foe, No. 15 James Madison this Saturday, Hager said.

The Bison were able to build a 20-3 lead with the absence of Murray. Senior halfback Kyle Steffes was difficult for the defense to handle, rushing for 153 yards and two touchdowns, including six rushes for 39 yards on the 53-yard scoring play in the second. Steffes also capped off a 63-yard scoring drive with a one-yard touchdown run late in the second to put the Bison up 14-3.

Third-down conversions were just as difficult for the Huskies, who converted only 3 of 11 in the game. The Bison, however, excelled where Northeastern did not, converting 8 of 13 on the night.

“We just faced a very good football team; they capitalized on some of the things we did,” Hager said. “We just gotta get a couple extra inches to get third-down conversions and things would have been much different.”

A pair of Bison field goals in the third would put the Huskies down 20-3. Their first score since the first quarter would come in fourth on a 26-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Anthony Orio to senior tight end Kendrick Ballantyne. It was Orio’s first touchdown pass of the season. He was 16 of 19, passing for 117 yards against the Bison.

Running proved difficult for the Huskies, not only because of Murray’s absence, but also because of a scheming Bison defense that loaded a lot of defenders up front, Hager said. Northeastern had 20 rushes for 45 yards on the day, compared to 221 yards on 41 rushes for the Bison.

The matchup was much anticipated because of Hager’s return to Fargo, where he coached the Bison to two national championships in 1988 and 1990. A member of the North Dakota State hall of fame, he received a warm welcome from the 16,134 Bison fans in attendance.

“The respect the fans showed for us was nice,” Hager said. “They appreciated what was done by the staff I had when I was there.”

Hager, who grew up in North Dakota, was happy to see friends and family while his Huntington Avenue team took on the Bison. The game was his first visit to Fargo since he left in 1996, and it was his first shot at winning his 100th career game.

Hager began his Bison tenure in 1979 as a graduate assistant and wide receivers coach, but quickly rose through the ranks and became a head coach in 1987. Of those 99 wins, 91 were as Bison coach, the most in Bison history. Hager was a combined 91-25-1 in Fargo, with undefeated seasons in 1988 and 1990.

The Huskies play their first Atlantic-10 game Saturday when they take on No. 17 James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. The Dukes are 1-1 this season. They struggled but prevailed over Division II Bloomsburg, 14-3, then lost to host Appalachian State, the nation’s number one-ranked team at the time, 21-10.

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