FARGO — Back to reality. From a much-anticipated game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in the Arizona desert to a Missouri Valley Football Conference grinder in Vermillion, S.D. No bye week. No time to reflect. No time to push the reset button. Just diving right back into it.
Such is life for the North Dakota State football team, which lost a disappointing 31-28 contest to Arizona last week in a late-night affair in Tucson. The Bison mostly played well, but had a few crucial mistakes and missed opportunities. And so their six-game winning streak against FBS opponents ended.
Losses are rare in Fargo, particularly this early in the season, so it feels like NDSU’s usual margin for error in trying to secure a top-two seed and homefield advantage through the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs has been reduced by a hair — even if the loss was to an FBS opponent.
If NDSU can get a victory in Vermillion, its schedule sets up nicely leading up to the big Dakota Marker showdown game against South Dakota State. After USD comes homecoming against Youngstown State Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome followed by a road trip to lower-division foe Indiana State. Take care of business in the next three games and NDSU will head into Jackrabbits week 5-1.
So this is an unexpectedly crucial game in the Bison’s quest for homefield advantage and another playoff run toward Frisco, Texas, and the title game.
Here are five things to watch in the Bison-USD game.
No, we’re not talking tigers in hotel suites and stolen cop cars in Las Vegas. We’re talking FBS hangover.
The game at Arizona was a big deal for NDSU and its program. The school’s president and athletic director flew to Tucson early in the week and hosted alumni events. About 10,000 Bison fans attended the game. Even if they said it was just another contest, NDSU coaches put extra time and effort in preparation for the Wildcats. For the players, it was a chance to make their mark in college football by knocking off an FBS opponent — a rare opportunity for NDSU, which gets few games against higher-level opponents.
It was an important week for the Bison. And they lost.
So can they bounce back from the high of an FBS game and the disappointment of a tough defeat to play sharp enough to defeat South Dakota? That will be the first thing to watch.
“Our kids were … very frustrated. But nobody’s disappointed. Not disappointed in any one of our coaches or our players because the effort and the preparation was outstanding last week,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said at his Monday press conference. “Now the challenge is to take that that same mentality and put it to this week. And that’s always, when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, that always is the challenge. You hope the maturity and some of the veteran leadership on our football team comes out this week.”
The 10,000-seat DakotaDome should be energized, considering the Bison are visiting. The game is not a sellout, according to the USD ticketing website, but the facility is small enough that a crowd of 8,000 or 9,000 will be plenty loud.
If NDSU comes out flat and USD gets its offense rolling early, the game could turn into a meat-grinder.
If the Bison are locked in early and get some defensive stops, the potential exists for another in a growing list of blowouts. In the teams’ last four meetings, NDSU is averaging 52 points. On their last trip to Vermillion in 2018, the Bison won 59-14.
A South Dakota media person started a conversation with me this way: “What’s going on with NDSU’s run defense?”
The Bison are allowing 136 yards rushing per game, putting them 43rd in FCS. That’s not awful, but it’s not great. A year ago, NDSU allowed 84 yards rushing per game. That’s great.
Through three games, NDSU’s defensive calling card through its dynasty — stopping the run dead cold — has not appeared. All three opponents, including extremely so-so Drake and North Carolina A&T, have rushed for more than 100 yards. Last season, NDSU allowed four teams to rush for more than 100 yards over the course of its 15-game schedule.
The Bison still rank 11th nationally in total defense, thanks to a high ranking in pass defense, but the same questions remain about their defense that were present during fall camp.
Namely, defensive line and linebacker.
NDSU clearly misses graduated middle linebacker Jackson Hankey and could surely use Jasir Cox, who transferred to FBS West Virginia. It awaits the return of junior Cole Wisniewski, who injured his Achilles tendon in the offseason.
It appears Entz is getting frustrated by his linebacker play, judging by some comments he made at his weekly presser. When asked if he’d settled on a No. 1 middle linebacker entering conference season, Entz threw down the gauntlet for juniors Nick Kubitz and Luke Weerts, who’ve been splitting snaps at the position.
“I would love to get to a point where we could pick a guy,” Entz said. “Someone needs to give me a reason to pick a guy.”
When asked about Wisniewski’s possible return, Entz challenged his medical staff.
“Are you asking my medical opinion? From what I see, I don’t know why he’s not practicing. Wink, wink,” Entz said. “He’s moving around, he’s flying around at practice. I give our medical staff the business every day because I see him running back and forth, doing all these drills and I’m wondering, ‘When can I start at least putting the shoulder pads and helmet on?’ So I’m hoping soon.”
Up front, the Bison lost some key defensive linemen from a year ago and — combined with an injury to preseason All-America tackle Eli Mostaert — are young an inexperienced in the middle. Redshirt freshmen Kody Huisman and Jaxon Duttenhefer each played 24 snaps against Arizona backing up starters Will Mostaert and Javier Derritt. The young guys will play key roles the rest of the season.
“I think it was a reality check for them. They probably got tired of coach (Nick) Goeser and coach (David) Braun always talking about pad level. Sometimes it takes just getting punched in the mouth a little bit to realize that wasn’t just coaches talk, that was real,” Entz said. “Not that they played poorly. But there was just moments when they looked like freshmen out there.”
Overshadowed by a costly fumble inside Arizona’s 10-yard line, which was a huge turning point in the game, Bison quarterback Cam Miller continues to be Capt. Efficient. Miller was 10 of 12 for 124 yards and one touchdown against Arizona, continuing a quietly solid run since an up-and-down performance in a loss to South Dakota State at Brookings last season.
The obvious thing missing so far is completions to his wide receivers, who were targeted only four times against the Wildcats. Jake Lippe and RaJa Nelson were the only receivers to have catches, which totaled just 28 yards.
The lack of an emerging No. 1 receiver remains an issue.
But Miller remains a solid signal-caller, if not an explosive dual threat like Easton Stick or Trey Lance. The junior is completing 69.7% of his passes (23 of 33) with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He runs when needed, gaining 30 yards (before sack yardage is subtracted) on 11 attempts.
Miller’s passing efficiency is 203.95, which would be by far the best in FCS if he had enough attempts. The NCAA requires an average of 15 attempts per game to qualify for the passing efficiency stats.
Since losing a fumble and throwing an interception in a loss at SDSU a season ago, Miller in the nine subsequent games has completed 67.6% of his passes (90 of 133) for 1,221 yards, 11 TDs and just one interception. The only pick came late in a second round playoff victory over Southern Illinois when the Bison had a big lead.
Miller was efficient and accurate — and didn’t turn over the ball — in the semifinals against James Madison and the championship game against Montana State.
That’s his job, as long as NDSU’s offensive line continues to dominate the line of scrimmage and the Bison can run the ball.
NDSU is known for playing “clean” games, defined as games without turnovers, mistakes and penalties. It’s been one of the keys to their success during the Bison’s FCS dynasty.
So far this year, the penalties category has not favored the Bison.
NDSU is averaging 60 yards in penalties per game. They’ve been flagged 17 times in three games for a total of 180 yards.
The 60-yard per game average ranks the Bison 75th of 123 FCS teams. Last season, NDSU averaged just 47 yards per game in penalties.
Entz has long said he doesn’t mind what he calls “aggressive” penalties, things that happen during the course of a play like a hold or pass interference. It’s what he deems “intolerable” penalties that have him frustrated.
There were false starts in the Arizona game that helped thwart drives, including one on NDSU’s first possession that turned a second-and-2 into a second-and-7. The Bison couldn’t convert.
“You saw a couple of false starts. I’m not necessarily sure those were based on noise, but more on just some cadence issues that we might have had during the course of the game,” Entz said. “Those are things we can rectify. Those are things that we need to correct because those are what I consider intolerable penalties. Those negative plays really change a coordinator’s thought process when it’s first and 15 versus first and 10.”
NDSU had six penalties against Arizona, which only had one. It was one of the differences in the game and can often be a deciding factor in close games.
USD scored just one touchdown in its first two games, losses to FBS Kansas State and second-ranked FCS team Montana. That issue was solved against Cal Poly last weekend in the Coyotes’ home opener. USD won 38-21 and put up 560 yards of offense.
(Although, in a troublesome side note, Cal Poly had 559 yards against the USD defense.)
USD’s offensive improvement can be linked to junior quarterback Carson Camp, who had his best game as a Coyote. He completed 18 of 21 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Camp also ran for a 75-yard TD on USD’s first possession.
NDSU’s defense will be significantly better than Cal Poly’s, but USD needed some sort of spark after a rough start to the season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Camp is the third highest-graded passing quarterback in the Missouri Valley Football Conference behind Theo Day of Northern Iowa and Jason Shelley of Missouri State.
If Camp can remain accurate and find his inexperienced receivers downfield, the Coyotes can cause problems for NDSU.
“If” is, of course, the key word.
Asked to assess Camp, Entz noted the quarterback’s experience.
“He looks relatively comfortable. I mean, he started what 17, 18, maybe pushing 20 games right now. So it’s not as if he’s just a new signal-caller coming into league play. He’s just played a lot of snaps,” Entz said. “I think they’re well coached. I think Teddy Schlafke, their quarterbacks coach, does an outstanding job and he seems to be in control of himself. Doesn’t make a lot of mistakes out there and that would be the challenge on Saturday.”
Speaking of Schlafke, he was replaced as the offensive play-caller after USD’s loss at Montana. Head coach Bob Nielson is now handling those duties. Nielson said he felt OK calling plays against Cal Poly, but there is room for improvement.
At his Monday media session, Entz said he hadn’t watched the USD-Cal Poly game tape closely and so didn’t have a good read on how Nielson called the game differently than Schlafke.
“It did look like maybe they’re using a little bit more of the play clock. And maybe that’s the head ball coach is trying to protect his defense a little bit more,” Entz said. “But I think that they’re a very well-coached football team.”
If USD slows down its offense, it might actually benefit NDSU. The Bison historically have had more trouble against teams that run tempo and push the ball down the field as opposed to teams that huddle and run down the play clock.
One other thing to watch: It seemed Schlafke like to set up the run by taking deeper shots down the field, while Nielson (in a very small sample size against Cal Poly) looked like he preferred to set up the pass by establishing the run. If the Coyotes can get something going on the ground against the Bison, it will help Camp in the passing game.