This Saturday brings a second consecutive rematch against a quality opponent for the 2015 Bison. A week after dispatching Montana and exacting a little bit of revenge, the Thundering Herd have to keep Northern Iowa from exacting vengeance of their own. Seven games removed from a homecoming showdown that saw Carson Wentz hit Darrius Shepherd in the back left corner of the end zone for a 31-28 Bison win, the two schools meet for a chance to play in the FCS semifinals.
Yes, this game is technically a rematch. UNI is playing NDSU, that's for sure, but these two teams don't look very much like they did on the 10th of October. Aaron Bailey is now the unquestioned leader of the Panther offense at quarterback. Bailey threw for more than 1500 yards and rushed for over 1300 in becoming the MVFC's newcomer of the year. The Bison have made a change at the quarterback position as well.
NDSU freshman QB Easton Stick has taken over the reigns of the Bison offense from the injured Carson Wentz and led the Thundering Herd to six consecutive wins. Stick's insertion into the offense initiated a return to true "Bison football". In his time at QB, North Dakota State has ran the ball almost exactly twice as many times as they've thrown it. This revelation, in addition to the Bison defense stepping up in a major way, has led to shortened games in which NDSU dominates the time of possession battle.
In many ways the two programs are mirror images of each other. North Dakota State and Northern Iowa are consistently two of the best defensive teams in FCS. North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman actually played for and coached for Northern Iowa. NDSU and UNI have had a least a share of 11 of the last 15 MVFC championships. Both the Bison and Panthers sent their tailbacks (John Crockett and David Johnson) and top defenders (Kyle Emanuel and Xavier Williams) to the NFL a season ago.
Northern Iowa is certainly in an unenviable position. Long a national powerhouse, the Panthers have played Division I football since 1973 without a national championship victory. North Dakota State began Division I play in 2004. By 2008 the Bison were in the Panther's conference and today NDSU are the four time defending FCS champions. It's understandable for the Panthers to have an attitude about NDSU.
That has manifested itself in some bold statements. This week several UNI players have deemed themselves "the best FCS team left". NDSU doesn't seem like a team that really needs to have bulletin board material provided to them.
When the Bison have the ball:
If I had one statement to make about the effect the Bison offense will have on the outcome of this game it would be this: they won't be able to throw it 13 times and gain 66 yards through the air and still win the game. As I said on our most recent episode of BisonReport Radio, I don't think that's going to be a problem. I understand that we don't really know if Easton Stick can throw the ball 25-30 times and be effective but we definitely don't know that he can't. As highly sought after as Stick was as a recruit and with as much as he's put on film throwing it this season (60% completion, 8.3 yards per attempt, 11-2 TD/INT ratio) there's no concrete evidence to make anyone believe he can't open up the offense.
So why hasn't Stick had to open up the offense yet? Because the Thundering Herd is running the ball with overwhelming effectiveness. There's an old saying: three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad. The Bison have been able to simplify the offense and allow their running game, ranked first in the MVFC, and defense take care of the winning. The Bison are averaging 313 yards on the ground per game since making the switch to Stick.
Bison tailback King Frazier was a little "nicked up" after the game against Montana but the coaching expects him to be available. Frazier, Bruce Anderson, Darius Anderson, Chase Morlock and Lance Dune carried the ball a combined 44 times against the Griz. I'd be surprised to see a number that high against a stout Panthers defense. Defensive lineman Karter Schult and linebacker Brett McMakin anchor the Valley's second ranked run D.
The Bison will have to rediscover thier receiving corps to get a win over UNI on Saturday. Freshman Darrius Shepherd and sophomore RJ Urzendowski were each able to have big days against the Panthers secondary in the first meeting in October. A lot of that may have had to do with MVFC defensive player of the year Deiondre' Hall lining up at corner against senior Zach Vraa. Due to injuries Hall now lines up next to Tim Kilfoy to present a very impressive safety tandem. It will be interesting to see how Vraa, Urzendowski and Shepherd react if they are called upon after spending so much of the last month and a half blocking.
When the Panthers have the ball:
It's going to be all about Aaron Bailey. The Achilles Heel of the Bison defense has been the QB run all season long. North Dakota State hasn't had to deal with a starting QB who likes to run since they gave up 92 yards to Ryan Saeger and lost to South Dakota. When Youngstown State decided to throw in backup QB Ricky Davis to run jet option looks with RB Jody Webb it resulted in a combined 193 yards on just 16 carries. We'll find out very quickly on Saturday morning if QB run is still a problem.
There are two sets of matchups to watch specifically in the spread option game. Northern Iowa running back Tyvis Smith vs. Bison linebacker Nick DeLuca and the NDSU defensive line and Bailey vs. OLBs MJ Stumpf and Pierre Gee-Tucker and safeties Robbie Grimsley Tre Dempsey. Smith has been very effective of late, rushing for more than 140 yards in each of the Panthers' last four games. If Bailey gives the option handoff it will be up to defensive tackles Brian Schaetz and Nathan Tanguay to dominate the middle of the offensive line and keep DeLuca clean. Northern Iowa will be without center Robert Rathje, which against Schaetz and Tanguay is not ideal.
If Bailey keeps, it's going to be up to Stumpf and DeLuca to contain him. Should he break through the first level of defense, it is of the utmost importance that Grimsley and Dempsey make solid tackles. Keeping plays with bad run fits to seven and eight yard gains instead of 70 or 80-yard touchdowns could be the difference in the game. It will be interesting to see just how close to the line of scrimmage Grimsley and Dempsey play.
The Panthers really only have one credible threat on the outside in sophomore wide receiver Daurice Fountain. With Bailey only throwing the ball 14 times a game over their last five contests, one would have to think that taking Fountain away with Smith would be enough to make the Panthers one dimensional. If Smith is tasked with limiting Fountain and the safeties are paying attention to the run game, It will fall on Jordan Champion to hold up agianst secondary receiver Charles Brown, often with no help.
This is a hard one. Last week, it became so clear throughout the week that Montana was out of their depth. The beatdown that was administered by the Thundering Herd was unsurprising. Despite the fact that Montana was ranked #16 and UNI is 15th, I have completely different feelings about those two teams and a different feeling about this game.
So many times in last year's playoffs and then again in the Northern Iowa game on homecoming, this Bison team called upon Carson Wentz to dip into a phone booth and change into Superman. Superman isn't walking through that door. Despite reports that Wentz was practicing this week, I don't expect him to contribute to this game in a meaningful way. Stick and the Bison are going to have to get it done. Again.
With all that said, when was the last time the Bison didn't get it done? Has Stick ever not gotten it done? No. I'm going to have to wait until the Thundering Herd actually lets BisoNation down in a big spot to pick against them.
Bison 20 UNI 17