Northern Iowa isn’t mincing words before their quarterfinal matchup Saturday against four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State at the Fargodome. The headline from a Cedar Falls, Iowa newspaper, The Gazette, says it all: “Panthers believe they’re best FCS team left.” As if these two teams didn’t like each other enough already, throw that gasoline onto the fire.
Sure, newspapermen occasionally write headlines to fan the flames and grab your attention. This headline, though, comes straight from the horses, or, in this case, the Panthers’ mouth. “In my opinion, yeah, absolutely,” said Karter Schult, a junior defensive lineman for UNI, to a reporter from The Gazette. “I think we’re the best team because I know the guys on this team. … What we go through, I just think it’s the top of the FCS.” Okay, maybe Schult meant going through the Missouri Valley Football Conference. After all, getting through the Valley is a meat grinder that sets up teams for postseason success. Nope. He clarified a few sentences later. “In my opinion, we’re the best team left.”
Schult’s teammate, Deiondre’ Hall, the MVFC defensive player of the year, echoed the sentiment. “In my eyes, of course (we’re the best left).” Same goes for all-conference linebacker, Brett McMakin. “Are we the best team that’s playing? We believe so.” How’s that for bravado? This was a message intended for broadcast straight to Fargo. The UNI Football twitter account was telling the Bison what was what. “We’ve seen each other 1x this year, but NDSU hasn’t seen this #UNIFight. It’s a whole new game in the #FCSPlayoffs,” linked to comments from Panther head coach Mark Farley.
It’s the second straight week an opponent enters the Fargodome proclaiming themselves better than the Bison. Last week, Montana head coach Bob Stitt told all who would listen that NDSU was the exact same team from the Griz’s season-opening win in Missoula while his team had improved drastically. Stitt also questioned Bison quarterback Easton Stick’s ability to handle playoff pressure, and, for good measure, decided to give his team an advantage because they’d been playing must-win playoff games to make the playoffs since October.
How well did that sit with the guys wearing the green and yellow? For the Griz, you could say stitt happens. The Bison dominated all phases of the game on the way to an impressive 37-6 victory. Did Stitt’s words give the Bison any added fuel? Some dismiss this smack-talk banter as a way the media generates hype for the game, and that the players don’t need any added motivation. Maybe. I’m not in the NDSU locker room. I have no idea what our guys are saying or thinking about the Panthers’ declaration that they’re going to walk into the Fargodome and KO the Bison.
Having said that, the last thing you want to do is give a competitor any bulletin board material. People play this game, not robots. Yes, the game ultimately comes down to execution, but emotion plays a role. Look what happened when NDSU came out flat against the University of South Dakota.
So, why in the name of 19,000-screaming Bison fans did Montana and, now, Northern Iowa, want to give Bison Nation another reason to be jet-engine jackhammer loud come Saturday morning? Your guess is as good as mine. Disrespecting the Bison is the new normal for this FCS playoffs. There is an undercurrent, no, a jet stream blowing coast-to-coast that folks, especially other teams, don’t think the Bison are as good as the championship teams that came before them. Around the country, people were lauding Montana as the hottest team in America. With the Griz hibernating for the winter, that distinction falls to UNI, with Illinois State not far behind.
Whatever the Bison think about this, they’re keeping their mouths shut. Following the win over the Griz, head coach Chris Klieman explained the mindset of this team. “That was as focused of a group, and we’ve had some big wins here, but that was as focused as a group I’ve seen in awhile.” At the end of the day, December is a different animal than the regular season, something Klieman summed up rather appropriately. “You don’t win championships in August, you win the suckers in December.”
Part of winning championships involves Bison Nation, something coach and players were quick to point out after a deafening crowd played havoc on Montana’s offense. “People in the stands today were absolutely crazy,” said Stick, who improved to 6-0 in place of the injured Carson Wentz. “They brought the juice and we kind of fed off them, credit all of Bison Nation.”
Just like the offensive line has a job to do in opening lanes for our running backs and protecting Stick, just like Code Green has a job to do in containing the Panthers’ running game, you – as a fan, as a card carrying member of Bison Nation – have a job to do. Your job is to be absolutely bonkers, bat-$#!& crazy, and make life difficult for UNI’s offense. UNI can talk all they want, but 19,000 people yelling back carries a pretty big message, too. How important is crowd noise – on first, second, and third down? Huge. “Wow, man, the crowd was unbelievable … it was crazy, to throw off the quarterback, he looked confused for most of the game and I think the fans played a big part in that,” said senior cornerback C.J. Smith.
Defensive tackle Brian Schaetz agreed. “It definitely screwed up their o-line, getting in their checks and stuff. Once you get in the rhythm and once you get that crowd going it feels surreal.” According to Klieman, the crowd played a definite role. “The crowd was a huge factor, the crowd was an immense factor for us to be able to get off the football.” One NDSU staffer told me it was the loudest he ever heard the dome, including the classic semifinal against Georgia Southern.
With UNI calling out Bison Nation, our response must be loud and clear. Like the pregame video against Montana said, the road to Frisco still runs through Fargo. Everyone up – and stay up! – for the kickoff, the march is on!