Technically, North Dakota has won 10 of its past 15 games against North Dakota State.
No, really! The Fighting Hawks got on a roll in the 1990s, beating the Bison 10 times between 1993 and 2003 to take what was then a 62-45-3 lead in the series. After a 28-21 loss in 2003, NDSU left Division II to officially become North Dakota State, FCS Juggernaut, and the programs have played only twice since.
It’s odd to realize that FCS’ preeminent power wasn’t even in FCS until 2004 and didn’t enjoy its first title until 2011, but that’s how comprehensive the Bison’s power has been over the last decade: It has erased history. On Saturday, their history perhaps catches back up to them: When they host UND in the Fargodome, they will do so as the lower-ranked team.
Note: Rankings listed below are the STATS FCS top 25 found at NCAA.com, and all times are Eastern.
In its first year in the Missouri Valley, North Dakota controls its destiny.
The Hawks are 4-0, having already felled the teams currently ranked fifth (Southern Illinois) and sixth (South Dakota State). In a crowded, raucous MVFC, they have risen to the top with a combination of defense and opportunity. They’re allowing only 17.3 points per game — fifth among teams that have played at least three games — and are riding a happy wave of fortune in the turnovers department. They’ve recovered all five of opponents’ fumbles and have picked off five passes.
They outgained SIU and SDSU by only three combined yards, but a plus-7 turnover margin allowed them to stake a combined 34-point advantage. Since then, in wins over South Dakota and Western Illinois, the turnovers stopped providing as many breaks, but the offense picked up slack. Otis Weah rushed 16 times for 163 yards and two scores against a USD team that was ranked until last week; against a struggling WIU, everything worked — Weah and Luke Skokna rushed for 196 yards, and quarterback Tommy Schuster threw for 328 yards and three scores.
The Hawks are having a breakout season despite a solid upgrade in competition. The 2001 Division II national champion and alma mater of Phil Jackson, Eddie Belfour and Chuck Klosterman followed NDSU to the FCS level in 2012, one year after the Bison’s first title. They enjoyed just one winning season in their first six years, but there were signs of growth. They upset Wyoming in 2015, then went 8-0 on the way to their first playoff bid in 2016. They finished above .500 twice in a row in 2018-19 and made it back to the playoffs in 2019, but they have yet to score their first win. Despite moving up to the FCS’ version of the SEC, however, they’re playing themselves into quite the high seed for this year’s playoffs.
UND has been a “get-it-done” type of team, with each unit stepping up when required. Projected over a typical 11-game season, Weah would be on pace for 1,200 rushing yards, Schuster for 2,300 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, 6-foot-4 receiver Garett Maag for nearly 1,000 receiving yards, linebacker Jaxson Turner for nearly 10 sacks and Jordan Canady for 5-6 interceptions. But teams typically have to be more than simply resourceful and timely to beat North Dakota State.
If NDSU has a solid fifth gear, now is the time to show it.
It’s like we’re living in two parallel universes at the moment. In one, NDSU is preparing to celebrate its second first-round quarterback draft pick in six years. In another, NDSU has some serious offensive deficiencies.
Trey Lance played in only one fall game and opted out of the spring season to prepare to become, per Todd McShay, the No. 4 pick in next month’s NFL draft. That meant an earlier-than-anticipated succession plan, and the results haven’t been impressive. While the Bison run game has been decent — Kobe Johnson, Jalen Bussey, Dominic Gonnella and Cam Miller have rushed for 658 yards (5.6 per carry) and five scores — Lance’s successor Zeb Noland has completed just 54% of his passes with three touchdowns and four interceptions. The passer rating for the Iowa State transfer: a ghastly 109.8.
Even worse, these poor stats aren’t the product of a poor start, and things haven’t been trending upward. In a 21-13 win over Illinois State this past weekend, Noland was 6-for-13 for 72 yards and two picks. The freshman Miller subbed in and went 5-for-7 for 61 yards (plus 57 rushing yards) and a late game-clinching TD, and coach Matt Entz told local media Monday that he wasn’t sure who would be starting against UND on Saturday.
While the defense had a few problematic moments in the loss to SIU, the Bison have allowed just 20 points in three other spring games. They forced Illinois State quarterback Bryce Jefferson into 9-for-26 passing, and the Redbirds needed some fumble luck to be as close as they were.
What a time for your first career TD, Cam Miller. pic.twitter.com/BDcPUyao4g
— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) March 13, 2021
Now that the playoffs are approaching and the importance of these games is ramping up, we’ve seen just enough NDSU-ness from North Dakota State that if the Bison shift gears and roll to a title, it won’t be completely surprising. But it’s going to be really difficult to do that without a reliable QB. Does Entz hand the reins to Miller despite youth? Does he stick with Noland and attempt to grind out something like a 14-10 win? The decision could decide whether NDSU’s 31-game home winning streak is still active on Sunday.
Projected score: NDSU 20.0, UND 16.5 (NDSU -3.5, over/under 36.5)
Coach Prime (and VMI) Watch: ranked!
This week’s Stats Perform rankings saw some shuffling near the top after teams ranked fourth (Northern Iowa), sixth (Villanova) and seventh (Nicholls) all lost and No. 2 Weber State nearly did the same. James Madison remained No. 1 after a postponement, and UND hopped WSU for No. 2, but maybe the two most noteworthy teams show up further down.
First, VMI, which hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1981 — 40 YEARS!! — is 3-0 for the first time since then. The Keydets went just 6-38 in head coach Scott Wachenheim’s first four seasons before a 5-7 “breakthrough” in 2019. But they pummeled Mercer, 41-14, last week and debuted at 19th this week. They’re one of only two remaining unbeatens in the Southern Conference, along with 2-0 Chattanooga.
To keep this run going, they’ll have to take down a Samford team used to close games. The Bulldogs have suffered two seven-point losses (one in OT) and beat No. 20 Wofford, 37-31, last Saturday. Quarterback Liam Welch threw for 359 yards — 178 on seven completions to Ty King — and helped to trigger a 30-7 run that turned around a double-digit deficit.
Projected score: Samford 33, VMI 30 (Samford -3, over/under 63)
Five spots further down is maybe the most headline-grabbing team of the spring: Deion Sanders’ Jackson State Tigers. They pummeled Mississippi Valley State, 43-7, on Sunday to move to 3-0 and remain well-positioned in the SWAC race. For a storied program that hasn’t been 3-0 since 2011 and hasn’t won a conference title since 2007, this is a big deal.
Granted, they have a bit of an “ain’t played nobody” problem — MVSU has been bad for years, and another victim, Edward Waters, is an NAIA school. Their marquee win against Grambling State was dampened a bit by GSU’s loss to Prairie View A&M last week, too.
Still, they’re looking the part. Quarterback Jalon Jones is combining big-play passing (nearly 14 yards per completion) with solid contributions to an efficient run game. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman’s unit is swarming to the ball and getting contributions from a wide array of personnel — nine players have at least 1.5 tackles for loss or two passes defensed. Sanders has drawn headlines by bringing loads of talent to Jackson State, in terms of both FBS transfers on the field and coaches like Thurman, a former NFL defensive coordinator, on the sideline. While not many of his transfers are eligible yet, the Tigers look like a completely different team this spring than the one that went 4-8 (and only beat MVSU by three) in 2019.
Saturday comes a stiff test. JSU travels to Montgomery to face an Alabama State team that has played only one game, a 24-21 loss to preseason West Division favorite Southern. The Hornets held a lead in the fourth quarter and split the yardage with the Jags; their defensive line features a pair of outright boulders — 363-pound Christian Clark and 311-pound Maryland transfer Brandon Gaddy — that could help stifle JSU’s run game.
Projected score: JSU 26.0, ASU 19.5 (JSU -6.5, over/under 45.5)
More games to watch
Saturday afternoon: No. 11 Chattanooga at No. 13 Furman (noon, ESPN+). The SoCon’s other unbeaten, Chattanooga, is facing a pretty stiff test itself. The Mocs are underdogs to a Furman team that has lost only to VMI.
Saturday afternoon: No. 6 South Dakota State at No. 5 Southern Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+). The MVFC currently has four of the top six teams in the country, which is crazy even for the MVFC. The loser of this battle of 3-1 teams will have to scrounge for one of only a few playoff at-large bids.
Saturday afternoon: Dixie State at No. 9 Kennesaw State (1 p.m., ESPN+). A moment of appreciation for Dixie State, the FCS’ BYU — an independent from Utah that had to forage for opponents in an odd season. After splitting games with Tarleton State and nearly beating FBS’ NMSU, the Trailblazers are off to Georgia to play a dynamite KSU squad.
Saturday afternoon: No. 16 SE Louisiana at No. 22 Incarnate Word (3 p.m., ESPN+). UIW has pummeled McNeese and Lamar thus far, but the degree of difficulty now rises: Three of their next four opponents are currently ranked.
Saturday evening: Missouri State at No. 10 Northern Iowa (5 p.m., ESPN+). UNI remains a top-10 team, but the Panthers can’t afford another slip-up after last week’s one-point loss to SIU knocked them to 2-2.
Saturday night: No. 7 Sam Houston State at Lamar (7 p.m., ESPN+). Lamar did just knock off McNeese State in Lake Charles, but there probably won’t be a down-to-the-wire finish here. You will, however, get a glimpse of maybe FCS’ wildest offense. SHSU hung 71 points on what had been a top-10 Nicholls team last week. Eric Schmid has 794 passing yards and eight TDs in two games, and Jequez Ezzard has 236 yards on just six catches. Bask in the explosiveness.
Sunday afternoon: Southeast Missouri State at No. 8 Jacksonville State (3 p.m., ESPN+). JSU continues to roll along — the Gamecocks are now 3-0 in the spring and 6-1 overall — while SEMO might be the best 1-3 team in the country, having suffered two three-point losses and, last week, a double-OT defeat to Austin Peay.
Sunday afternoon: Tennessee State at No. 25 Murray State (3 p.m., ESPN+). A moment of appreciation for TSU kicker Antonio Zita, who bombed in a 62-yard field goal to give the Tigers a late lead against Eastern Illinois, then nailed a 35-yard game winner minutes later.
— Tennessee State Football (@TennStateFB) March 14, 2021
Damn right, he celebrated like he won the Super Bowl. You would have, too.