A tough week just got tougher for North Dakota State. After the Bison were upset by perennial Missouri Valley Football Conference cellar dweller, South Dakota, NDSU was hit with a double dose of bad news upon learning that starting quarterback Carson Wentz will be sidelined for six to eight weeks with a wrist injury. What a difference a week makes. Only a few days ago, the Bison were the No. 2 ranked team in the country with two of their seemingly toughest opponents in the rearview mirror, one of the hottest quarterbacks in college football at the helm, and looking towards another potential deep postseason run.
Now, the Bison face questions of whether the loss to the Coyotes was an aberration, a storm that caught them off guard, or the sign of troubles that run deeper. “We’ve got to play better, both sides of the football,” explained Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “Our players know we have to move forward and you can’t let the same team beat you twice by not preparing yourself.” NDSU travels to Terre Haute, Ind., to face No. 18 Indiana State, a team coming off a 39-36 win over Southern Illinois. ISU was a playoff qualifier last season, beating Eastern Kentucky in an opening round matchup.
The Sycamores are second in the league in total offense, averaging nearly 439 yards per contest and, in Matt Adam, have the sort of quarterback that has given NDSU’s defense fits in recent weeks. “We have to do a better job in general against the quarterback run game, we haven’t defended it to our liking in the last couple weeks,” said Klieman. It’s likely no secret what ISU will try to do against the Bison. Two weeks ago, Northern Iowa’s quarterbacks combined to rush for 216 yards versus NDSU while USD’s Ryan Saeger had 92 rushing yards in the first home loss for the Bison since 2012.
Coupled with Adam, ISU has several explosive skill players, like receiver Gary Owens, that combine to give defenses fits. “I thought they were very explosive on offense doing all sorts of things, I’m very impressed with their skill kids.”
The once invincible Bison have suffered two losses in a season for the first time since 2010, where, it should be remembered, they put together a stretch playoff run to reach the national quarterfinals. Despite the loss to USD, with seven MVFC teams ranked this week, the league race remains wide open. Guiding NDSU in their attempt to straighten course and get back in the win column is redshirt freshman Easton Stick. With Wentz out for the foreseeable future, the playoff hopes for a team looking to make history by winning their fifth consecutive national championship will be determined, in large part, by Stick’s performance.
Stick was perhaps the most highly sought recruit in NDSU’s 2014 recruiting class – a class that already has eight players seeing significant minutes, including Stick’s high school teammate at Omaha’s Creighton Prep High School, R.J. Urzendowski. In announcing the 2014 class, Klieman had high praise for Stick. “It was really a no-brainer as our staff in the quarterback position, we always try to take one a year, that was the guy we tagged and earmarked as the one we wanted.”
With five games remaining in the season, four wins guarantees NDSU a return trip to the postseason and a shot at defending their FCS title in Frisco. The Bison, for their part, would prefer not to endure any more losses. “We’re going to rally around Easton Stick and we’re going to play good football,” Klieman said. “Athletically, we’re excited, just as all you are, to see what Easton can do. Like I told him when I visited with (him) today, when we recruited you, we didn’t recruit you to come here just to be a practice player. I know it’s unfortunate how (he’s) going to become the starter this week with Carson’s injury, but it’s your opportunity to show what you can do.”
Bison fans are hoping the Herd will be able to circle the wagons, and, come six to eight weeks from now, have a choice to face at the quarterback position during the midst of another playoff run.