North Dakota State is 7-4 against the FBS since making the transition from Divison II. That's a season's worth of success against teams in a higher division, with 100% of those games coming on the road. Not only that, but the checks written to the Bison to play in those games have helped fuel a Bison Dynasty. The Bison also hold a five game winning streak agains the "big boys. None of those wins, though, came against a team quite like Iowa.
The Hawkeyes haven't lost a regular season college football game since November 28th, 2014. They're the 11th ranked team in the country, they're the defending Big Ten West champions and the Hawkeyes and their faithful spent last New Year's at the Rose Bowl. Head Coach Chris Klieman has made no bones about it, this Iowa team is the best football team North Dakota state has ever faced.
The Bison and the Hawkeyes are mirror images of each other. Both teams recruit the midwest, focusing on not only talent but scheme fit and work ethic as well. Both teams run the ball to set up the pass. Both teams play excellent defenses augmented by front sevens that play together and talented defensive backs (see Williams, Marcus and King, Desmond). There are also plenty of ties between the two programs. Chris Klieman grew up a Hawkeyes fan in Iowa. Deputy Athletic Director of Athletics Gene Taylor helped build the Bison Dynasty at NDSU and AD Gary Barta actually played quarterback for the Thundering Herd.
When the Bison Have the Ball
This will be the biggest difference NDSU will have to deal with between this game and its first two. NDSU hasn't looked quite like the offensive machine that Bison fans know and love. More than that, though, the talent difference between Iowa's defense and the defenses of Eastern Washington and Charleston Southern is remarkable. The Bison offense, and specifically the offensive line, are going to have to grow up quickly.
I have a feeling that this is a game that NDSU knows they don't have the advantage in talent. In order to have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win they just might try to slow the game down. In order to do that the Bison will need to run the ball effectively and stay on schedule. If they get off schedule punter Jackson Koonce needs to play well. Much better than he's played so far.
The Bison have to not only stay on schedule on offense but on the scoreboard as well. It hasn't happened in a very long time, but NDSU is not a team that finds themselves very comfortable down 3 possessions. Those situations may not faze an offense like Eastern Washington, but the Bison are methodical in what they do. Not only that, but Desmond King is by far the best player on the Hawkeyes. King is a terrifying cornerback and the less the Bison throw, the less they have to deal with King.
When the Hawkeyes Have the Ball
Code Green has a lot of explaining to to. The Bison gave up an unheard of 556 yards of offense a week ago to Eastern Washington. Bison Football, above all else, has been defined by defense. They played poorly against the Eagles, especially considering the star of EWU football, Cooper Kupp was injured when NDSU really started to struggle in the back end.
Iowa might not play wide open like EWU does, or run the option like Charleston Southern, but they (obviously) have more talented players. Even if there's a a better scheme fit for the Bison defense the way Iowa plays, they're still dealing with superior athletes. It's enough to make a Bison fan nervous. Watching how NDSU defended CSU and EWU would make any neutral observer concerned about NDSU's ability to defend CJ Beathard, Matt Vandeberg and the rest of the Hawkeyes.
The defense is also where hope lies for the Bison. If any group can keep this game close for the Bison (and give them a chance to steal it at the end), it's the front seven. Greg Menard, Nick DeLuca and Nate Tanguay give the Bison three All American level athletes on that side of the ball. The Bison defense is (obviously) susceptible to the spread offense, but in a base defense vs. base offense game, the Code Green front seven give the Bison a puncher's chance.
Eleven times have played against the FBS, eleven times they've covered the "spread". This is a program built on exceeding expectations and making national-media-level noise. The Hawkeyes come into this game as heavy favorites, but over the last four seasons have proven that they are don't make obliterating FCS opponents a habit. I expect a war. Unfortunately for Bison fans I haven't seen enough out of this year's team to believe they can win this war. NDSU shows a lot of Bison Pride, but ultimately falls short. Bison 18 Iowa 21