For the first time since 2009, the NDSU football team started the season with a loss. That 2009 season ended with a 3-8 record. It has been largely credited with turning around the entire program. The redshirting freshmen on that squad would take over the program the next season and make the FCS postseason for 4 straight years, winning national championships in the final three of them (2011-13).
This Bison team isn't going to go 3-8. Despite the loss to Montana on national television two weeks ago, the Thundering Herd remains a favorite to return to Frisco, Texas for the national title game. Making the playoffs still seems like a formality. With all that said this is a different group of Bison. It's a young group of Bison.
This year's club offers only 28 upperclassmen (Juniors and Seniors). Despite it feeling like the Bison return almost everyone offensively that's a pretty low number. To continue at a championship pace, Coach Klieman would say that the North Dakota State program must "reload", they cannot afford to rebuild. After the loss in Montana, it seems like the 2015 version of the Herd also needs to reload.
The reload starts today at the Fargodome at 2:30. The Bison wecome Weber State of the Big Sky Conference. The two teams met a season ago in Ogden, Utah. The Bison had found out earlier in the day that a second consecutive trip to Fargo by ESPN's College Gameday was on the line. Weber State hung in the game for longer than many expected, but ultimately fell 24-7. The Bison need to win, and on the day that Bison Nation gets to watch the updated championship banner rise again, they'd prefer if they won big.
When the Bison have the ball:
There certainly wasn't a problem with the Bison offense moving the ball in Mizzoula. Carson Wentz and the crew ripped off 427 yards, with 229 of those coming on the ground. It looked like classic Bison football. The Bison dominated time of posession as well. The only thing missing, and what ultimately cost them the game were uncharacteristic fumbles. Taking care of the football has long been a staple of the Bison offense but coughing up the ball and, for the first time in what seems like forever, failing to come up with the big play at the end of the big game cost the Herd dearly.
The Wildcats held the Bison to their second lowest yardage total of the season in the 2014 meeting and just went toe-to-toe with Oregon State of the Pac-12. Weber ultimately lost both games but for a home and home non-conference series that was supposed to be gravy the Wildcats have a lot of fight. It would be foolish to expect an Incarnate Word or Delaware State result.
Coach Klieman has publicly stated that he expects to start star QB Carson Wentz. That's fine, but one would expect the designed runs for the Bismarck Bomber to be scaled back. For the Herd to move the ball they're going to need to get more out of the conventional rushing attack and more out of the passing game. Expect Wentz to air the ball out behind 6 and 7 man protection units and put pressure on the back end of the Wildcat defense.
Wildcat head coach Jay Hill has taken over the defense and the unit is very serviceable. The score of the Oregon State game was 13-7 in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats are led by safety Josh Burton. Burton was a monster against the Beavers, racking up 10 tackles and providing an interception returned for a touchdown and Weber State's only points. The Wildcat defense is going to have to play extremely well to avoid falling to 0-2, because the offense might struggle.
When the Wildcats have the ball:
Though the Bison defense gave up a mind-numbing 544 yards 2 weeks ago, the task isn't as tall as it was in Mizzoula. This is for a number of reasons. First of all, the Wildcats aren't the Grizzlies offensively. Oregon State isn't a defenisve powerhouse and Weber State was only able to muster 178 yards of offense last Saturday. That's a rough showing no matter who you are, and no matter who you're playing.
Quarterback Jadrian Clark struggled. He completed barely over 50% of his passes, but that's not the full story. It's the intercetption and the abysmal 3.4 yards per attempt that illustrates just how badly things went. The Wildcat rushing attack didn't fare much better. Led by only 7 carries from Eric Wilkes, Weber State was only able to muster 3.2 yards per carry. Neither way seems like an efficient way to move the ball.
No matter how poorly you think Weber State's offense played against the Beavers, the Bison defense must play better. There are certainly reasons to believe that that might occur. First of all the boys are back in town. There is no question that the deafening Fargodome crowd aids the Herd defensively. It makes adjustments at the line impossible and really makes third down a problem. Expect the crowd to be very fired up after a loss and even more fired up after the championship banner is raised and the AC/DC blares through the Fargodome sound system.
The home crowd isn't the only reason that the Bison defense could be more up to the task. The Thundering Herd's top defender, CJ Smith, is returning. His return (as did his absence) has a domino effect. The Bison defensive backfied slots into place with thier #1 guy back. CJ Smith is a shutdown corner. He might not make as many plays on the ball as a player like Marcus Williams, but he takes away the other teams top guy like few before him.
His addition lets Tre Dempsey play safety. His addition keeps Jordan Champion, who struggled against the Griz, play a little nickel and play a little outside but certainly stay away from taller #1 receivers that he probably shouldn't be matched up with. His addition allows Defensive Coordinator Matt Entz more flexibility in the way that he uses Chris Board. The Bison defense is now at full strength. it's time to find out if that's going to be enough.
The Bison are going to be fired up. The crowd's going to be fired up. CJ Smith is going to be fired up. There are a lot of reasons to believe that a Bison blowout is coming.
There are also a lot of reasons to be concerned. The Wildcat defense played very well against a Pac 12 program. The Bison defense really struggled against the last Big Sky offense that it faced.
NDSU will use more conventional offensive sets and operate with success. The defense will continue to have growing pains, but eventually it will tighten up beind CJ Smith's return and the noise of Fargodome crowd. As it did a season ago, the game will seem closer than the final score would indicate.
Bison 31 Weber State 14