Last week's victory over Indiana State was not a "season saving" win. It may have been a season stabilizing win. The last time NDSU lost consecutive games, I was in college, Brett Favre was the quarterback of the Vikings and the number one song in the country was the masterpiece "Down" by Jay Sean featuring the stylings of Lil' Wayne. It would not have been ideal to drop two games in a row in the middle of this season, especially after the loss of Carson Wentz.
Saturday's matchup against Southern Illinois is now the "bridge" game. If the Bison lose you might also hear it called a "trap" game. The loss to South Dakota was not a "trap" game. The Bison weren't looking forward to ISU or SIU or any other combination of the letters I, S, and U. It was a letdown, more than that it was a poor performance.
The game against the Salukis in Carbondale is the game before the biggest game that the Bison have left on the schedule. The Harvest Bowl matchup against Western Illinois is the biggest game left on the schedule. The two final teams on North Dakota State's schedule, Youngstown State and Missouri State have a combined league record of 1-7 heading in to this weekend's slate of games.
The Bison have to re-focus after the emotional victory over Indiana State while also avoiding any looking forward to Western Illinois. Southern Illinois might have a 2-2 conference record and a losing record overall, but the Salukis have the top ranked offense in the Valley and they move the ball in ways that the Bison really struggle with, specifically running with the quarterback and going no huddle.
It will be a telling week for Bison football. Is the Bison defense that good, or did they just show up big for Easton Stick? Can Easton Stick throw if the Salukis stack the box? Was the Indiana State game the start of a trend for NDSU or was it an inspired performance from a team that had just lost a game it shouldn't have lost (and their QB)? Bison fans will find out a lot about the 2015 team on Saturday afternoon.
When the Bison have the ball:
The Bison have been a quarterback driven offense all season. Despite a run/pass ratio of 313/199 (favoring run), Carson Wentz and Easton Stick are responsible for either running or throwing for 68% of NDSU's total offense. That number wouldn't be strange if it weren't for the run/pass discrepancy. The Bison are going to to run the offense through the freshman Stick on Saturday, as they have done with the QB all season long.
If you're looking for a big breakout game from Stick, this just might be the week. Despite throwing multiple fronts at opposing offenses with both three and four-man defensive lines, the Salukis are struggling mightily on defense. The Salukis are giving up 464 yards per game. Southern Illinois checks in ninth (out of ten teams) in both total defense and scoring defense. This is a defensive unit that should allow the Easton Stick version of the Bison offense gel.
The Salukis are led on defense by inside linebacker Chase Allen. Allen is a graduate of Belleville High School in Belleville, Illinois, the same high school as Bison LB Pierre Gee Tucker and redshirting freshman Dominic Davis. Allen leads Southern Illinois in tackles and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss. Lack of pass rush has been an issue all season long for SIU. There isn't a single Saluki who has more than 2.5 sacks through the seven games that they've played.
The Bison coaching staff made mention of wanting to get true freshman Bruce Anderson more carries against Indiana State. Despite being in line for something in the ballpark of 15 carries, Anderson got nicked up against the Sycamores and managed only five touches. It will be very interesting to see if Anderson is still in line for a heavier workload. The young back from Ruskin, Florida is still leading the running backs in yards per carry by a pretty wide margin. Not only that, but NDSU's leading rusher King Frazier has struggled holding on to the ball.
The coaching staff mentioned a need to get Easton Stick up to a 60% completion percentage. As important as the number might be the point is more general. They'd like to see Stick be more efficient throwing the ball. As athletic as Stick is, if he's able to be more efficient throwing the ball he'll become very, very difficult to defend. The Salukis are giving up over 260 yards passing per game, so if Tim Polasek and the offensive coaching staff want to open up the passing game, this might be the week to do it.
When the Salukis have the ball:
Saturday is going to be a major challenge for the young Bison defense. Code Green played very well against Indiana State, a team that stylistically is similar to SIU. With that said the things that the Salukis do well, running a no-huddle wide-open attack and utilizing a dual threat quarterback, are the things the Bison have struggled with all season long. North Dakota State was able to string together good defensive performances against Weber State, North Dakota and South Dakota State. Rediscovering that defensive consistency will be the key to Saturday, and ultimately the key to the season.
The Salukis are led by senior quarterback Mark Ianotti. Ianotti leads the Salukis in both passing and rushing. SIU is averaging over 307 yards passing and Ianotti himself is rushing for more than 72 yards per carry. If you were to draw up a quarterback to attack the weaknesses of this Bison defense, Ianotti might be it.
It's also possible that Southern hasn't played anyone who plays any defense. Each of Southern Illinois four conference games have been against Valley defenses that rank in the bottom half of the conference. Indiana is a Power 5 conference school, but even they rank outside the top ten in a conference called the Big Ten, which is not ideal. Over the years the Bison defense has made a habit of shutting down high flying offensive attacks.
The Bison might be without their most disruptive defender on Saturday. Greg Menard injured his groin against Indiana State and has been listed as questionable throughout the week. If Menard goes it' will most likely be on a snap count between 25-35 snaps. If he is unable to participate the Bison will have to turn to Jarrod Tuszka, Caleb Butler and Stanley Jones to rotate in at the defensive end position. Against a running quarterback defensive ends are very important to the game plan.
Chris Klieman mentioned that Tre Dempsey had his best game as a Bison against Indiana State. As the Bison get healthier at cornerback, Dempsey's ability to control the back end makes NDSU a very difficult team to throw against. If either sophomore Chris Board or true freshman Robbie Grimsley can step up in a meaningful way, the DBs may very soon be an elite unit again.
I said before the season that the Bison were not going to make it through the Missouri Valley schedule undefeated this season. I think I already missed my chance to correctly predict who the one loss was against. After the loss to South Dakota I was relatively certain North Dakota State would drop another conference game. After watching the Bison against Indiana State and taking a second look at the schedule, I think they run the table.
I've been waffling between predicting a blowout, which I didn't last week and should have, and a blowout win. I don't think that the Salukis are good enough defensively to slow down Stick and the Bison. I think that the young Bison defense is improving every week, especially as the linebackers and safeties learn how to play with each other. The Bison win this one by two touchdowns, just as they did last week. NDSU 31 Southern Illinois 17