It was by far the most dramatic of the five consecutive National Championship victories achieved by NDSU. Illinois State QB (and current Minnesota Viking) Tre Roberson had just romped for a 58 yard touchdown to pull the Redbirds ahead. It was on the following drive, that perhaps the legends of both RJ Urzendowski and Carson Wentz were born. Wentz hit Urzendowski three times and marched the Herd down the field for the game winning touchdown, which he ran in himself.
That was the last time that North Dakota State and Illinois State squared off, and the only time in the last two seasons. The Missouri Valley has maintained it's status as a ten team league with an eight game schedule. Two teams in the league miss each other for a two year period during every rotation. For the last two seasons, it has been Illinois State and NDSU missing each other. They've also managed to be co-champions of the MVFC for the last two seasons.
Both teams come in to Saturday's game with something to prove. Illinois State wants to make a statement, both that their failures in the playoffs don't have them "behind" NDSU as a program and that they are the team that beat Northwestern, not the squad that has lost their last two games to FCS opponents. For the Bison, the key is to leave no doubt. You can bet that the Bison coaching staff is reminding the Bison not to have a let-down after the Iowa game and that Illinois State is just as much two-time defending MVFC champs as they are. This is NDSU's chance to put that idea to bed.
This matchup certainly has different key contributors. There's no Carson Wentz, John Crockett, or Joe Haeg for the Bison. No Christian Dudzik or Colten Heagle on defense. The Redbirds are without the aforementioned Roberson and tailback Marshaun Coprich. Big James O'Shaugnessy (2 TDs in that game) is gone as well. While the cast of characters might be different, you can bet that these two squads are ready to tangle on Saturday.
When the Bison have the Ball:
Wash, rinse, repeat here. The Bison are taking on an impressive defense that will try to stop their running attack first and foremost for the second straight week. The Redbirds are allowing just 113 yards a game on the ground. They've certainly played some FCS opponents that don't try to run the ball, but Northwestern is a Big Ten team any way you slice it. Illinois State is playing solid run defense.
Iowa is a good run defense, too, but last week the Bison proved that it didn't matter. Center Austin Kuhnert just may have proved that he's the straw that stirs the drink in the run game. Considering the degree of difficulty as it pertains to their opponent, NDSU's 239 yards on the ground were a revelation. I'm going to have a hard time believing Illinois State brings something to run defense that Iowa didn't. Expect the Bison to run the football.
I anticipate NDSU to stretch the field in the passing game. They now possess the kind of run offense that requires an eight box defender. Easton Stick took big shots down the field against Eastern Washington and I anticipate that becoming more and more a part of the playbook. Stick hasn't been utilized quite as much as a runner this season as he was last, and that might have a little to do with Polasek wanting him to get comfortable throwing the football.
NDSU's tight ends are going to have to be even more involved on Saturday and for the foreseeable future than they have been. Brock Robbins is out for 6-8 weeks with an injury, immediately following the best game of his career against Iowa. NDSU isn't going to just stop using the "I" formation, so Chase Morlock and a few of the bigger tight ends are going to have to pitch in at fullback. It won't be Morlock full time, he's too valuable with the ball in his hands.
When the Redbirds have the Ball:
The post-Nick DeLuca era begins with an opposing offense that is tailor made for the Bison to make that transition. Illinois State might run a lot of their stuff out of the shotgun but they're not a "spread" team, and they're not an option team either. The Redbirds are going to try and run the ball with Moreira and Towns and more importantly have Jake Kolbe throw the ball to Anthony Warrum.
The Bison have had an impressive run of opposing top wide receivers. NDSU took on Cooper Kupp three weeks ago and Matt Vandeberg of Iowa, Warrum is a very good player in his own right. The Bison are actively still trying to figure out their cornerback depth, and their approach to defending Warrum will be something to watch. So far, Jalen Allison hasn't been a player that Coach Entz has asked to follow the opposing team's #1 receiver around the field.
One other thing to watch will be both NDSU's willingness to play their nickel defense, and the personnel they use if they do it. The Bison have proven over the first few games that they have no problem defending three receiver sets with their linebacking corps, but without Nick DeLuca that becomes more difficult. NDSU used a 3-3-5 look when they used a nickel defense against Eastern Washington. They might need to use a 4-2-5 without DeLuca. It's easier to rush the passer that way. Robbie Grimsley is leading the team in tackles and NDSU's nickel package allows Grimsley to operate closer to the line of scrimmage.
NDSU is coming off of a big win, but I don't foresee any chance of a Iowa-related let down. The Bison are too concerned with separating themselves from ISU in the Missouri Valley. Bison 34 ISUr 20