Win the conference. Host playoff games. Wash, rinse, repeat. Thats been the formula for North Dakota State football ever since the 2011 season kicked off against Lafayette. It's honestly a bit like the Dynasty Mode in EA Sports NCAA Football franchise. It doesn't seem real. I was alive (and a huge fan) for two Chicago Bulls 3peats, so that was at least feasible. Four didn't seam like a real thing. Five? Definitely not.
So is this the season where the Bison wake up and return to earth? Is this the season that the difficulty mode gets changed from "All American" to "Heisman"?
It all starts on Saturday afternoon against San Diego of the Pioneer League. Bison fans will remember the Pioneer league. The Bison played the first Division I football game in the history of the state of North Dakota against Valparaiso of the same league. NDSU, playing with basically a Division II squad, rolled 52-0. It was a day of great pride for all involved.
Saturday's opponent, San Diego, tore through a Pioneer League schedule. They finished undefeated and weren't really challenged throughout. San Diego has a balanced squad. The offense is more than capable and the defense actually ranks #1 nationally.
How much of that has to do with playing in the Pioneer League? That's the $500,000 question. The Pioneer is a non scholarship league. Only in college hockey (oh, college hockey) can a university sponsor only one Division I team. Many Pioneer League teams have other viable DI programs. Valparaiso and Butler basketball certainly come to mind.
Can this San Diego team compete with the year after year top-end recruiting talent that ends up at NDSU? We're about to find out.
When the Bison have the ball:
One thing that you'll find with a lot of non-scholarship teams is a lack of size, which is definitely the case for San Diego. The defensive line isn't so small that it's egregious, but they're not big either. They have 230 pound defensive ends and 280 pound defensive tackles. Where the size problem is going to be is at thew second level, the linebackers/nickel guys are not very big. Even Alec Moreno, who appears to be a very good player is just 215 pounds despite playing at a legit 6'2".
This NDSU offensive line is huge, and huge for an NDSU offensive line, not just in general. I just don't known how the Toreros are going to deal with Jack Plankers, Zack Johnson and Landon Lechler. With the return of Bruce Anderson and Brock Robbins to full time action, I expect NDSU to be able to run the ball whenever they want.
Yes, San Diego has a great defense statistcally. Yes, San Diego shut down Cal Poly's attack, but those are smaller offensive lineman who use wide splits to make that triple option attack functional.
Will NDSU throw the ball? Maybe, but as a change of pace. The boost in confidence that the passing game needed to beat South Dakota State in round two happened in Vermillion to close the season. Bison fans might have to hope it carries over into the quarters.
When the Toreros have the ball:
San Diego will actually provide the Bison with a good look for South Dakota State (if both of the _DSU's are able to win). Brian Reilly and Ross Dwelly give about as good of a "scout team" look at Jake Weineke and Dallas Goedert as anyone can in the country. That's not to be disrespectful to them in the least, but they are both very tall for their positions and reasonably athletic. Whatever the Bison do to combat Reilly and Dwelly is going to look a lot like what they have to do against the Jacks.
I don't expect San Diego to run the ball effectively. This is the Bison run defense and these are the playoffs. QB run and the option are the two ways to try and move the ball against North Dakota State on the ground and the Toreros don't do either. It'll be a long day for San Diego on the ground.
Prediction: Non-conference team comes into the Dome for the first time in the playoffs and gets destroyed. Bison 40, San Diego 10