NORMAL — When Ashton Leggett snared a swing pass from Matt Brown, the Illinois State tailback only knew where he wasn’t going.
“I didn’t want to go out of bounds,” Leggett said of a third-and-11 snap. “We needed to keep the clock running.”
The Hancock Stadium clock eventually did stop but not before Leggett had roared down the right sideline for a 49-yard touchdown with 2:59 remaining that sealed ISU’s 34-24 victory over No. 14-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday before a homecoming crowd of 10,131.
Leggett initially lined up among four receivers split to the left before starting in motion toward Brown, who lofted a feathery pass his way.
“I knew it was a good call by Coach (offensive coordinator Luke) Huard, and it was great blocking by my lead blockers,” said Leggett. “It was a perfectly executed play at the perfect time.”
The Redbirds strolled considerably closer to perfection than in last week’s humbling 59-24 loss to Indiana State while improving to 4-3 overall and 3-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“I’m really proud of our players and our staff after last week’s game to hang in there and steady the course,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “We worked very hard to try to correct what happened a week ago, and it was a great effort on everybody’s part.”
Leggett and fellow tailback Erik Smith both surpassed 100 yards rushing. Leggett ran for 146 yards on 24 carries and caught three passes for 61 yards. Smith, who set up an ISU touchdown with a 73-yard jaunt, rushed for 113 yards on 16 attempts.
“Ever since Ashton and I got here, we knew we’re deadly with the ball in our hands whether it’s in the screen game, the pass game or the run game,” said Smith. “We can make some things happen and score some points.”
The Redbirds, who scored first in the second half and outscored their opponent after halftime for just the second time this season, rolled up 200 of their 287 yards on the ground over the final two quarters.
“We wanted to take the pressure off (quarterback) Matt (Brown) and get a good ground game,” Leggett said. “The offensive line blocked their butts off all day. They had lanes for us. We just executed.”
North Dakota State (4-3, 2-2) had taken a 17-10 lead into halftime after Jose Mohler took a quarterback draw 48 yards for a touchdown at the 1:32 mark of the second quarter.
Freshman Matt Younger reeled in two passes on ISU’s first drive of the second half, a 28-yarder in traffic and a 5-yard touchdown catch on third-and-goal.
Cornerback E.J. Jones, who intercepted Mohler twice, clobbered Mohler on a scramble. The resulting fumble was recovered by Redbird safety Bo Flowers.
Three plays after Smith’s 73-yard burst, Leggett scored from 1 yard out to cap a 96-yard procession for a 24-17 lead.
“Their offensive line did a nice job creating some holes, but their running backs did an excellent job,” said Bison coach Craig Bohl. “They played with a great deal of passion and got a lot of yards after contact.”
A 31-yard Steven Fetzer field goal pushed the ISU lead to 27-17 before Mohler hooked up with Warren Holloway on a 26-yard touchdown with 8:07 to go.
With the help of a critical third down facemask penalty on North Dakota State, the Redbirds drained five minutes from the clock with nine runs and a third-down conversion pass to Younger before Leggett’s long touchdown.
“That’s how we like to play. It was a lot of fun,” Spack said. “We felt comfortable we could run the football. The quarterback got us in the right plays and we executed.”
Brown completed 17 of 29 passes for 186 yards, including a 25-yard first-quarter touchdown to Tyrone Walker, as the Redbirds ran 30 more plays from scrimmage and outgained the Bison, 473-339.