It's certainly difficult to discuss this game without thinking about 2014. There are quite a few similarities. NDSU comes in to the game as the national championship favorite. UNI had started off slowly, at one point in that season sporting the same 3-4 record that they enter this Saturday's game with.
The Bison were flying high, and the Panthers needed to save their season. NDSU got blown out. 23-3. Looking back on that game it's easy to see all the NFL talent on the Panthers and understand how NDSU could have lost that game on the road, but that wasn't the point.
The point is the way NDSU lost. Their last three losses have come by the other team taking the lead with :00, :01, and :02 left on the scoreboard. This was a butt kicking. Not only was it a butt kicking but it ended a 33 game winning streak for an NDSU program that had been receiving votes in the AP Top 25.
Despite all those similarities, this is a very different matchup. There will be no Carson Wentz, Kyle Emanuel or Christian Dudzik for NDSU. David Johnson, Deoindre Hall and Brett McMakin aren't coming through that door for the Panthers, either.
Also, these teams are in different places. The Bison have already had their reality check loss. That came two weeks ago against South Dakota State. UNI is in a different place too. Despite their 3-4 record, this is a UNI team that has a high level of confidence following a 60+ point performance against Missouri State. All those points came after a change at quarterback. Eli Dunne replaced longtime threat Allen Bailey nad threw the ball all over the yard.
This game might be the last hurdle NDSU has to clear on their way to a top 2 seed in the FCS tournament. If the Bison can get past Northern Iowa, they have two home games and a revenge game at South Dakota left on the schedule. Even if South Dakota State runs the table and finishes the season 9-2 and undefeated in the Valley, it would be hard to keep NDSU out of the top 2. A 10-1 record with the only loss of the season coming on the last play of the game to (what would be) an undefeated MVFC champion and a win over Iowa is a top 2 resume.
Saturday's game against Northern Iowa isn't just a rivalry game, it's a huge schedule hurdle to clear.
When the Bison Have the Ball
I keep writing a lot of the same stuff about what happens when NDSU has the ball because they do a lot of the same things no matter what defense is being played at the time.
The Bison are going to try and establish the run early and often. Easton Stick is going to have to be a little more selfish on a number of his option reads. There were a number of times against Western Illinois where he hung his outside runners out to dry despite big holes up the middle. If UNI decides to key on NDSU's speedy perimiter threats the way that WIU did, Stick has to take the ball up the middle.
UNI is more imposing against the run than they are against the pass. The Panthers do a good job in pass coverage on backs and tight ends, and Farley at inside linebacker is a big part of that. After the losses of Mackinton Dorleant and Deiondre Hall the defensive backfield isn't what it used to be. Tim Kilfoy isn't there anymore, either. The receivers will have an easier time, perhaps, than the tight end group. Expect Stick to target Shepherd, Freeman and Urzendowski.
When the Panthers Have the Ball
This is obviously going to depend a lot on who UNI uses at quarterback.
I don't anticipate UNI being able to run the ball if they're going to use Eli Dunne and operate running schemes with Tyvis Smith that are "conventional". They're best hope to move the ball against the Bison run defense is the same that it has always been, to run a read option scheme with Bailey and Smith. Bailey is the top threat to the Bison D and he might not play a snap.
The reason for that would of course be Dunne and the national player of the week honors he achieved against Missouri State. He has talented pass catchers and NDSU still has a pass defense that lags behind the run stopping. Daurice Fountain is a very talented player, as I have a lot of respect for anyone who got deep past CJ Smith a season ago (it didn't happen often).
There is a chance, however that UNI plays into NDSU's hands. NDSU's pass defense is starting to gel, and if they don't use Bailey it would be the best possible thing to happen to the Bison. UNI, should they fail to run the ball are not good enough to throw the ball on every down and beat the Bison. I don't care where the game is being played.
NDSU really started to become the dominant team that won the National Championship at about this time during last season. There is no question of motivation in a Northern Iowa game, and the Bison have the better team. I expect more scoring than some, and a Bison victory. Bison 31 UNI 21