The message reverberated loud and clear across the Football Championship Subdivision on Saturday night. Any thoughts that North Dakota State was vulnerable in pursuit of their fifth consecutive conference and national championships quickly disappeared after a third straight dominating performance, this one over rival South Dakota State. The Bison controlled all phases of the game against an overwhelmed and overmatched Jacks team in a 28-7 win to keep the Dakota Marker in Fargo. NDSU has won their last eight matchups against SDSU.
“Here’s where I think they have a hand up on us,” began Jacks head coach John Stiegelmeier after SDSU was held to minus-4 yards rushing. “When they walk onto the field, they believe they’re going to win. When we walk onto the field, I don’t know if all 77 guys that put on a jersey were confident and believed we could win.”
Words like that from the coach of a perennial playoff team speak volumes. It was a statement win by the Bison that served notice on the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and other challengers across the FCS. The team that lost to Montana is long gone. In its place is the most dominating team in the country during the last month – a team that looks every bit the part of four-time defending champs hungry to retain their belt. NDSU has outscored its last three opponents 103-30, with the outcome in each contest never in doubt.
“You got to be able to stop the run and get off the field on third down,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman on his team’s turnaround since an opening week loss. “In the open week after Montana those were two of the areas we really tried to emphasize.”
Consider that emphasis emphasized and then some. The largest crowd in SDSU history, 17,348 in attendance, including 4,000 to 5,000 NDSU fans, watched the Bison systematically dismantle the Jacks. Entering the game averaging 521 yards per game total offense, the Bison limited the Jacks to less than half that at 238 total yards. The highly touted wide receiver Jake Wieneke – who had 528 receiving yards through three games – was blanketed by Bison cornerback CJ Smith and he finished with only three catches for 39 yards and no scores. “I think it was our whole defense in general. We took it as a challenge upon our whole defense and I think we did a good job,” said Smith, who has established himself as one of the premier corners in the nation.
During the course of the last three games, NDSU has given up only 53 rushing yards. That’s not on average, that’s the total number of rushing yards Weber State (53 yards), the University of North Dakota (4 yards) and SDSU (minus-4 yards) gained against the Bison.
The Bison defense is yielding a miniscule 168 yards offense per game over that stretch. The most impressive stat, though, might be third-down defense. Since the Montana game, NDSU has held its opponents to a combined 5-of-41 on third downs. That’s a conversion rate of less than 13 percent. “We wanted to come out and execute and be more physical than they were, knock them back and move the line of scrimmage backwards,” said sophomore defensive end Greg Menard, who finished with 2.5 sacks against the Jacks.
For their part, the Bison offense is using the same time-tested formula that has proved devastating to opponents throughout the four championship runs – a balanced attack that controls the clock and converts on third downs. “Our guys had great focus to start that game and it showed, we got off to a great start,” explained Klieman. Carson Wentz methodically marched the Bison up-and-down the field in the first half with a combination of powerful runs and timely passes. The result was a 21-0 halftime lead that proved insurmountable.
“I think there are things we exploited and did a heckuva job. Obviously, we still left some things on the field, but I think we had a great game plan and executed it well,” said Wentz, who has yet to throw an interception this year to go along with his 10 touchdown passes.
Wentz has looked every bit the NFL prospect and has teams struggling to game plan against the Bison offense. Case in point, early in the third quarter, Wentz faked a handoff right, then cut left, darting through the Jacks defense for a 27-yard touchdown run that gave the Bison a 28-0 lead. By then, the only thing still in doubt was which Bison player would reach the Dakota Marker first to hoist it into the South Dakota night sky.
In what was supposed to be a coming-out party for SDSU’s football program in a renovated stadium, NDSU’s convincing win had Jacks fans streaming for the exits well before the fourth quarter even started. “It’s fun when you’re in their environment to hear nothing but Bison Nation and Bison fans as that game wore on,” Klieman said.
The scariest thing for the rest of the Missouri Valley and FCS – the Bison are still improving and will continue to get better. “The Valley, every week now from here on out, excited and fortunate to start it off like this,” Wentz said.
NDSU next faces Northern Iowa, the only team that beat the Bison last season. It’s homecoming week in Fargo, and ESPN will return for the third straight year, sending their flagship program, “SportsCenter” to broadcast live from the FargoDome on Friday afternoon at 5 and Saturday morning from 6-8. Kickoff time is set for 1 p.m. The game will be televised on NBC North Dakota and ESPN3.