Business as usual. That's what it has seemed like for the last three weeks. Granted, this past week was off for the Bison but the two games prior to that sure looked a lot like Bison Football. Blasting away at weak non-conference opponents has become an early season tradition for the Thundering Herd. The Bison defense looked a lot like the real Bison defense. Everything appears to be sunny in the land of green and gold.
Speaking of business as usual, the Thundering Herd are a good bet to handle their business coming off a bye. Since the 2010 season North Dakota State is 7-0 winning by an average of 27 points after a week off. That's a good trend if you're a Bison fan, because the South Dakota State team that NDSU faces on Saturday is the real deal. Not only did the Jacks win their first FBS game (over Kansas) but they've also made short work of Southern Utah and Robert Morris. The Jacks are averaging over 43 points per game.
This is the toughest game left on NDSU's schedule. In my opinion these are the two best teams in the FCS. I know that Coastal Carolina and Jacksonville State are ranked #1 and #2 in the country. Until I see something different in the postseason, the FCS is still decided in the Missouri Valley. The Bison are historically a very good road team, but there's no question BisoNation would feel better about this game if it were in the friendly confines of the Fargodome.
I can't shake the feeling that the Bison are going to drop a second game during the regular season. North Dakota State has lost one game or fewer in every season of the Championship era. That's a tall order. The Bison, even with the best team in the country each of the last four years have failed to go undefeated in Valley play during three of them. It seems unlikely that this team goes undefeated in the conference.
When the Bison have the ball:
The Jackrabbit defense has had a very similar season to that of the Bison. Both squads gave up 38 points on opening weekend, and both squads have rebounded nicely since. The question for the Bison offense is whether the Jacks played against bad offenses in their FCS non-conference games or if the Jacks defense is coming around. Carson Wentz and the passing offense have nothing to prove. Whether or not the Bison can run the ball against a good defense remains to be seen.
It's certainly a possibility that the Bison get into a shootout with South Dakota State. If you think the Bison have the best offense in the FCS, then you should believe that the Jacks are close behind. If SDSU scores a lot it might make life difficult for the Bison running game. Running the ball is fine, but if the Jacks start scoring a lot it might be time for the Bison to throw the ball. It's been a long time since the BIson had to get into an honest to goodness shootout, but it might happen on Saturday.
The game I'm reminded of is the Rhett Bomar game in the Fargodome. Sam Houston State came to the 'Dome during the Steve Walker-Joe Mays era with a former starting quarterback from the University of Oklahoma. Bomar and the Kats put up 495 yards of offense and Walker countered with almost 300 yards passing of his own. The game ended on an unbelievable touchdown pass from Walker to Kole Heckendorf. Wentz and the Bison passing offense could get into another shootout against the Jacks. If that happens it could lead to a season defining moment for Wentz and one of his young receivers.
When the Jacks have the ball:
Austin Sumner is gone. Zach Zenner is gone. The Jacks don't appear to have the same offense that they once had. Why, then, are they averaging over 43 points per game. No matter what you think about the strength of schedule thus far for the Jacks, 43 points per game against other student-athletes that are on scholarship is impressive. The new look Jacks offense appears to be for real.
As far as matchups go, the big one is Jacks Sophomore WR Jake Weineke against NDSU CB CJ Smith. Weineke's height makes him almost uncoverable by anyone besides Smith. Through three games Weineke has compiled staggering statistics. With 26 catches for 528 yards and 6 TDs, the Jacks offense might run through Weineke more than any other program runs through a wide receiver. Without Zenner, it's possible that South Dakota State's offense is now a one trick pony. If Smith can limit Weineke and take away that one trick, it could be a long day in Brookings for the home club.
Quarterback Zach Lujan has taken over for Austin Sumner and done so quite well. The Jacks are an interesting offense. If South Dakota State is behind big early there is no panic. It doesn't seem like this year's version of the Jacks is that committed to running the ball. If SDSU is forced to throw the ball in a shootout-type game it won't be an issue. Lujan would just as soon force the ball into Weineke than try to run an offense. It doesn't appear that it would bother anybody to charge Lujan with the task of trading bullets with Wentz.
As I said, I don't think the Bison are going to run the table in the Valley. I also feel like this is the most difficult game left on their schedule. It's easy to take those two opinions and predict a Bison loss, I just don't think that I can. It's too important for the rest of the football season that NDSU avoid falling to 2-2.
I'm reminded of how effective North Dakota State's teams of the championship era have been coming off of a bye week. Effort and preparation are two aspects of competition where NDSU is never beaten. The extra week off ensures that NDSU has rest and game prep that has been unavailable to South Dakota State. I'd be more worried about this game in the middle of the season, but not as the Valley opener, and not coming off of a bye.
So how does North Dakota State win? Does the defense step up? Do the Bison win a shootout? I think, as it often does, the answer resides somewhere in between. The Bison defense is a much better unit than the one that we all saw on ESPN against Montana. With that said this is still a competition between two of the best offenses in all of FCS football. I envision both offenses trying to pull away, but being unable to not because of incompetence but because of solid defensive play. In the end I trust Wentz more than I trust Lujan, and he makes the last big play.
South Dakota State 28 Bison 31