North Dakota State takes up a lot of oxygen in FCS conversation. That’s natural as everyone was chasing the Bison throughout the 2010s. And even though South Dakota State has taken over the subdivision as the top dogs, so many eyeballs around the FCS are still on the Bison every Saturday.
Who did the Bison play? How did they look? How did the QB look? Why didn’t they dominate? Are they vulnerable!? Oh dang, they lost … IS THE DYNASTY DEAD!??
(SDSU will get this treatment too as it keeps winning and every result will be over-analyzed.)
So when No. 2 NDSU lost its Homecoming matchup vs. unranked South Dakota last weekend, a game where the Coyotes held a two-possession lead for most of the 60 minutes, it had plenty of people talking, from FCS media to fans to I’m sure team buses, locker rooms, and coaching offices. Even casual college football fans who don’t watch FCS but saw NDSU lost had to tweet about it.
As wrong as it probably is, the result was talked about from an NDSU losing angle over a USD winning angle. And we’ll be hypocritical in that assessment and also talk about what this means for the Bison.
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The FCS, tired and bored of seeing one team dominate and soak up all attention for most of the last decade, seemingly smelled blood in the water this offseason when the Bison faced their most uncertainty since 2010. After an impressive non-conference that NDSU rolled through, which included two now-ranked wins over Eastern Washington and Central Arkansas, it appeared that uncertainty was put to rest.
“The Bison look like the Bison, and that’s not good for the rest of the FCS outside of SDSU wanting/hoping to catch NDSU.”
But after an unexpected loss to USD, those offseason questions have come hurling their way back.
Was it just an off game for NDSU, overlooking the Coyotes and sleepwalking to start the game, finding itself in a hole it couldn’t dig out of? Or was it a sign of things to come against MVFC opponents who know the Bison best and how to play them?
We really don’t know the answer until we see how things play out from here. But all of the offseason questions are back on the table after the USD performance.
Can the d-line go from pretty good to dominant again?
The Bison have good defensive tackle depth, led by Eli Mostaert’s return, who is playing at an All-American level. But NDSU doesn’t have a defensive end that an offense has to gameplan against. NDSU used to terrorize a pocket-passer like USD’s 6-foot-5 Aidan Bouman. He looked comfortable on Saturday behind an o-line that started two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. NDSU has seven team sacks this season, and its 1.75 sacks per game is 60th in the FCS. Its defensive ends only have three sacks.
Can the linebackers go from OK to good?
Logan Kopp has played well, but the Bison are still lacking that dude at linebacker, a guy who sticks out all game leaving viewers saying “That guy’s a helluva player.” Tackling was an issue last year, and the Bison defense as a whole through four games this fall has a PFF tackling grade that is 98th in the FCS.
How does the new-look secondary perform?
NDSU lost its top three safeties and top three cornerbacks through graduation or the transfer portal. The secondary has played way better than expected, especially through the first three games. There were some big plays allowed through the air vs. USD, and depth is a question mark. But Cole Wisniewski has really played well moving from outside linebacker to safety to lead that secondary. It’s not a dominant, shutdown unit. But it has exceeded expectations.
How does the o-line look after losing two NFL guys? And what does the RB depth look like?
The Bison offensive line is rarely a question mark. But we didn’t know if it’d be a pretty good unit this year or a dominant, mauling unit we’re used to seeing. It certainly won’t be a bad unit.
NDSU has moved some guys around to new positions, and so far the o-line has played alright. Its PFF run-blocking grade is 27th. Not bad at all, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten a dominant push to take over ball games. And that’s been a difference-maker in NDSU’s previous championship runs.
NDSU’s two leading rushers are its two quarterbacks (Cole Payton 242 yards, Cam Miller 223 yards). And outside of a 54-yard run against EWU, NDSU’s top RB TaMerik Williams hasn’t gotten going (210 yards). He averaged 2.7 yards per carry against a USD front without its top defensive tackle. NDSU doesn’t have another back over 150 yards yet this season.
Can the passing attack improve?
In the first three games, Cam Miller was playing like a top QB in the FCS. He was spreading the ball out to several different pass-catchers. In the non-conference, Miller was completing 80.6% of his passes for 526 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. His 173.2 passing efficiency ranked No. 7 in the FCS, and his 91.1 PFF offensive grade was No. 3.
The Bison have an almost new-look offense in moments of games, throwing the ball more and looking much better doing it.
And the USD game was pretty good as well. Miller went 18/25 for 159 yards and a TD, but he did throw an interception that aided in USD’s 21-3 start. NDSU struggled to stretch the field vertically when it needed to mount a comeback, though, and a WR that puts fear into defenses is lacking. The longest pass of the USD game was just 22 yards with a lot of routes toward the sideline or crossing patterns underneath the defense. Granted USD was protecting its double-digit lead by not letting anything go over the top.
So, what now?
The offseason questions were mostly answered after three games. And now they’re back.
NDSU has had bad losses in the past and still won a national title, including losing to USD in 2015. But some of those losses you could legitimately chalk up as off days for NDSU, where you could reasonably say NDSU was the better team but just played horrifically. Can you say that about this game? Man for man, player for player, USD looked just as talented, fast, and physical as NDSU and straight-up won, nothing fluky about it.
If NDSU rolls its next few opponents and USD stumbles, OK then we chalk this up as NDSU stubbing its toe. But the questions are legitimate for NDSU. If this is how they look against USD, who deserves massive props for the win and is surely better than what we gave them credit for, how will the Bison look with expected-to-be-tougher games coming at UND, SDSU, and UNI, plus a home game vs. red-hot SIU?
The margin for error is now smaller for NDSU. How far a team can go in the playoffs is somewhat dependent on playoff positioning, from your seed to your corner of the bracket to your side of the bracket.
A 9-2 record still seems more realistic than a 7-4 record, half giving NDSU the benefit of the doubt and half due to how it looked in the non-conference. But even 9-2 with two FCS losses could mean a road semifinal game. And if NDSU doesn’t re-answer some of its questions, a loss at SDSU and a third loss somewhere on this schedule is not a hot take. At 8-3 with three FCS losses, a first-round Thanksgiving playoff game and then road games from there is in the cards.
A week ago, it appeared NDSU was right there in the tiny top FCS tier of teams good enough to win a national title. And the Bison could absolutely get back to that point if they start to roll again. Frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising if they do by November.
But right now, after a thorough ass-kicking by USD (NDSU’s words, not mine), all those questions about how good NDSU will really be in 2023 are back on the table. We’ll see how the Bison answer them. And eyes across the FCS will certainly be watching.