What a bizarre way to open the season. It was unprecedented. It was the first overtime game the Bison played in the Fargodome, the first time a kicker dribbled the ball over the crossbar going into halftime and the first dose of reality that another championship is far from guaranteed this season. Charleston Southern played a great game and after sitting on it for a couple of days, here’s what we can take away from the first game of the season.
Matt Plank’s Moment
The obvious headline stemming for NDSU’s win over Charleston Southern was the injury sustained by All-American middle linebacker Nick DeLuca. The Fargodome sucked in a noticeable gasp of air when they saw their captain run off the field favoring his left shoulder. The concern was justified when a few plays after DeLuca’s departure, Buccaneer running back Mike Holloway zigged and zagged his way 47 yards for a touchdown.
Holloway, who is well on his way to becoming the all-time rusher in Southern history, was able to break the Bison contain creating an alley between him and the sidelines which was usually filled with a player in green and yellow all night. But on that particular third down play, Matt Plank, DeLuca’s replacement, took a less-than-favorable angle, missed the alley and Holloway was off, cutting his way across the field until he found the end zone untouched. Plank and the defense regrouped, and the junior from Gardner, Kan. fulfilled the “next man up” attitude of the Bison. Plank was later praised for his six-tackle effort by teammate MJ Stumpf and head coach Chris Klieman in the postgame press conference.
Klieman said Plank had time with the number one defense in practice so he was familiar with the type of calls the defense needed to make against Southern’s triple-option attack. It showed as time and time again Plank was in the middle of piles and was occasionally forced to make an open field tackle against Southern’s trio of backs. His most notable tackle of the night came on Holloway on second down in the only Southern drive of overtime.
Southern ended the night with 169 yards on the ground, but overall, the NDSU defense played tactically sound against the option, sticking to their keys and even tackling the occasional pitchman even if quarterback Kyle Copeland kept the ball. Take away Holloway’s three bursts of 40, 22 and 47 yards, Southern only ran for 60 yards on 31 attempts. That’s a staggering 1.94 yards per carry.
Plank played his role for more than a quarter, but that’s not the best part of his shining moment. Matt Plank just sounds like a middle linebacker. Saying his name brings you the sensation of upcoming pain about to be inflicted on your body. It’s up there with Takeo Spikes and Junior Seau in terms of great linebacker names. Matt Plank, that’s the name and player who may be called on to fill the irreplaceable role DeLuca has left for the foreseeable future. Speaking of a guy with a great name…
Easton Stick Played Like, Well, Easton Stick
The freshman that blossomed in front of our eyes last year is still undefeated. Now a sophomore and captain, Stick was on the forefront of everybody’s mind going into the first game. Will his arm be stronger? Will he be more accurate? Can he call an audible? Is it possible for him to not lead a game-winning drive? He checked all the boxes, including the last one which was caused by an uncharacteristic throw.
NDSU called a timeout after Dallas Freeman’s first catch as a Bison got them back to a fourth and manageable just outside of field goal range. Klieman and Polasek drew up a play and sent the infantry out to secure a first down and give sophomore kicker Cam Pedersen a considerable chance at banging through a game winner, heck, maybe they’d even punch it in with their quartet of backs. After NDSU lined up, Southern called a timeout. NDSU came back out and Stick threw an off-target pass behind Urzendowski and the Fargodome made a noise I haven’t heard since Indiana State’s Johnny Towalid returned his second interception back for a touchdown against Brock Jensen and the Bison in 2012. Klieman said in the press conference, he and Polasek would have liked Stick to look left for the tight ends instead of going across two hash marks to hit Urzendowski on a timing route. Stick looked right, to his go-to guy, the pass missed him by a couple feet and before you know it, Stick was registering his first collegiate tackle.
Obviously, this was a blemish on Stick’s performance, but after that, there isn’t much you can point to and say “this needs to change or else.” In fact, Stick’s performance was masterful in terms of what the Bison need from their man under center. He wasn’t winning the game by slinging the pigskin from sideline to sideline. Easton was being Easton by moving the pocket and scrambling out of danger if he needed. If anything, Stick almost held onto the ball too long, trying to make a play with his arm, which would eventually result in three sacks for Southern. Remove the sacks and Stick ran 8 times for a nice 69 yards. Lest we forget, he dropped two beautiful passes into the waiting arms of his roommate’s Darrius Shepherd and Urzendowski. Both resulted in touchdowns and mass hysteria among the Fargodome crowd.
What made the Urzendowski touchdown so impressive was that Stick made an audible at the line of scrimmage, according to Klieman. With 13 minutes to go in a tied ball game, the Bison faced a third-and-three from Southern’s 47. Stick approached the line and checked to a go route for Urzendowski. The junior beat his man and Stick lofted a beauty into the breadbasket for six.
Was his arm stronger? You ask the five defenders around Shepherd when he caught Stick’s pass over the middle near the end of the first quarter. Was he more accurate? Sure he missed a pass or two, but the throw to Shepherd in the end zone is as good as it gets. Can he audible? See the paragraph above. Yes, yes, and yes.
The point is, while watching Stick for the rest of the season, forget about the box score and enjoy our Omaha hero dance around tacklers in the pocket and scramble his way for another Bison first down.
The Problem With the Video Boards
I don’t have enough time to explain how great the new video boards are. You lack a pulse if you weren’t impressed.
Let’s get to the issue of the new video boards. The problem is they’re so big and the image is so sharp, our brains can’t process where to look. Many people took to the internet following the game to voice frustration about the number of ads on the video boards and the loss of their “tackles for loss” and “sacks” stats. I’ll miss them as much as the next nerd, but I’ll gladly trade it for HD quality replays of Urzendowski attempting a circus catch along the sideline. The tradeoff seems fair.
It’s going to be an adjustment with the two 30’x100’ video boards on the north and south end zones. The change is like going from fastpitch softball to baseball. In fastpitch, the ball is big and usually green and it’s coming from the hip of the pitcher. In baseball, the ball is much smaller and coming from near the pitcher’s head. It’s an adjustment you forget you need to make until the count is 1-2. In both sports, you have a ball hurling toward you at a high speed. The key is to correct your eyes and adjust to where you’re picking the ball up from the arm slot of the pitcher depending on which sport you’re playing. Hitting is about vision and so is remembering how many yards it is for a first down.
The problem isn’t the amount of sponsorships and ads on the boards. We, as fans, just don’t know where to look yet. I spent the first half not knowing the down and distance. It took half the game for my eyes to adjust, and I’ll probably have the same problem in a couple weeks.
How about that for a reintroduction into the Year 2016, by the way? Justin Swanson was right, the new video boards enhanced more than ad space, the fan experience at the Fargodome has become unmatched.
New-Look Offensive Line
The offensive line is a tough position to watch. The only people that get into the meat and potatoes of the position are people literally eating meat and potatoes to bulk up to become a Ram one day or a former offensive lineman who’s twitter bio reads “Real football is played in the trenches.” I’m not saying they’re wrong, I’m just saying it’s tough to get into the nitty gritty of people slamming into each other.
That said, a lot of eyes were on Tanner Volson Saturday as he filled in for a suspended Austin Kuhnert. The pride of Drake-Anamoose High School was thrown into the fire against Charleston Southern and faced an unrelenting defensive line that featured the likes Anthony Ellis, the 2016 Big South Preseason defensive Player of the Year and a member of STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year preseason watch list. The guy is a future pro.
On first look, the offensive line appeared to be having some problems controlling the line of scrimmage against the Buccaneers front seven. Southern head coach Jamey Chadwell explained in his postgame press conference their emphasis was on cutting pullers, an NDSU staple for years. Chadwell added they wanted to throw multiple blitzes at NDSU out of their 3-4 front to keep the Bison guessing. Southern also gave NDSU multiple pre-snap looks, Chadwell said, by using four or five different defensive formations along the line of scrimmage.
Southern threw the playbook at NDSU Saturday, but just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, NDSU found a way to run the football. They went for 230 yards on the ground in 44 attempts. Forty-four. Read that sentence again if you’re the guy yelling “pound the rock” in your section. Contrary to what seemed like a pedestrian night on the ground, the Bison still rolled for over five yards a pop. Some things never change and NDSU’s unadulterated power football appears to fall into that category.
Back to the skill guys.
Jalen and Jaylaan
Jalen Allison’s interception after he was called for an iffy pass interference penalty that easily could’ve been on the receiver is all you need to know about the sophomore corner’s mental toughness. Amnesia–it’s a good thing to have while playing in the secondary and I’m ready to diagnose Allison.
As for Jaylaan Wimbush? The picture below shows everything you need to know about how his night went.
Another ‘Different’ Season Opener
Adaptability is the word that comes to mind when thinking about NDSU’s defense. They’ve run a similar system, Cover 2, for the past several years that has shunned opponents and culminated the defensive success into multiple championships.
Last season’s FCS Kickoff against Bob Stitt’s infamous air raid provided NDSU’s greatest defensive challenge over the last five years. Of course, you remember the 92 plays Montana ran leading to 544 yards of total offense to open the season. NDSU simply didn’t have an answer for the up-tempo-go-for-it-on-fourth-down mentality until the two teams met in the playoffs. And we know how that story ends.
It appeared Charleston Southern was coming to the dome with another style of football not featured among Missouri Valley Football Conference members. Unlike Montana, the Buccaneer’s triple option could be compared to that of Georgia Southern and Wofford. What was deceiving is that Southern’s offensive attack was slightly more balanced than expected. Quarterback Kyle Copeland attempted 20 passes, and the run-pass ratio was closer to 60:40. Copeland completed just nine of his 20 attempts and seven of the incompletions were registered as pass breakups by NDSU’s defense.
As always, stopping the run on first and second down proved pivotal in the defense’s success Saturday, again, something the Bison weren’t able to do one year ago.
The three new starters on the defense shined Saturday. Matt Plank’s contribution was the cherry on top as the Bison proved its FCS dominance yet again. The secondary will be put to the test next week when the dome welcomes Cooper Kupp and Eastern Washington. More on the Eagles next week.