Four Keys to Returning to Frisco
The standards are high at North Dakota State. After winning five straight national championships, NDSU has firmly established itself as one of the preeminent programs in not just the Football Championship Subdivision but all of college football. The pieces are in place and the Bison are primed for another championship run. Here are four big-picture themes to watch for as NDSU focuses its sights on 2017 and getting back to Texas.
No. 4 – The Rams
The one position group the Bison never seemingly have to worry about is the offensive line. Year after year, NDSU graduates All-Americans and NFL prospects from The Rams. Think guys like Joe Haeg and Billy Turner. Yet, every year, the Bison have one of the best offensive lines in the FCS. This offseason, NDSU has to find replacements for veteran starters Zack Johnson, Jack Plankers, and Landon Lechler. Of any position group heading into 2017, finding the right pieces to protect quarterback Easton Stick and propel the Bison run game will be atop NDSU’s to-do list if it wants to contend for a seventh straight Missouri Valley Football Conference championship and make a deep playoff run.
No. 3 – No Overcorrection
The Bison were only a play or two away from returning to Frisco to play for a sixth straight FCS championship. After falling behind 17-0 to James Madison in the semifinals, the Bison charged back to tie the game at 17 with 5:53 left in the third quarter. NDSU had all the momentum and the Fargodome was rocking. After tying the game, a Robbie Grimsley interception gave NDSU the ball at the JMU 49-yard-line. Things looked good for the Herd. With a golden opportunity to take their first lead, the Bison ended up settling for, and missing, a 49-yard field goal. The Dukes ended up winning 27-17, giving NDSU its first-ever playoff loss at the Fargodome. A few weeks later, JMU dominated Youngstown State for the national title. The Bison return a majority of starters on both sides of the ball and are fully loaded for another championship run. NDSU needs to resist any temptation to overcorrect.
No. 2 – Red Zone Proficiency
While NDSU was able to move the ball between the 30-yard lines, too many drives stalled and the Bison struggled to reach the red zone. Of all the analytics, this one is the most telling. The numbers don’t lie. In the three seasons, between 2013-2015, the Bison averaged 45 touchdowns on 65 red zone attempts. By comparison, NDSU had only 41 red zone attempts in 2016, down 24 attempts from their average the previous three years. Looking at it from another angle, the Bison had fewer red zone attempts in 2016 (41), than the number of red zone touchdowns they averaged from 2013-15 (45). This showed the scoreboard. The Bison averaged their lowest scoring output in any year between 2011-2016, averaging fewer than 30 points per game for the first time since 2010. The correlation is simple, more red zone attempts equals more points. The Bison offense needs to get back to its mean for red zone attempts in 2017.
No. 1 – Getting Healthy
For the second straight year, North Dakota State opened its season a week earlier than the rest of the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bison played in the FCS Kickoff on August 27, 2016, winning in overtime against Charleston Southern. Opening the season in August meant starting fall camp earlier than everybody else. Playing into January also creates less time off before the beginning of the next season. If you combine that with NDSU’s grueling regular season schedule, the lack of rest could have contributed to the flurry of injuries that caught up with the Bison. Several key players missed significant time with injuries, including season-ending ones to All-American Nick DeLuca and Nate Tanguay, two of the best defensive players in the FCS. The Bison defense was still one of the best in the FCS without DeLuca and Tanguay. Getting those guys back in the mix, along with the emergence of guys like Grant Morgan and Matt Plank, who capably filled in during their absence, makes the Bison a favorite to return to Frisco in 2017.