North Dakota State's historic winning streak came to an unexpected and abrupt end on Feb. 27 with a loss to Southern Illinois. Lest one think the 38-14 defeat against the Salukis marked the end of the Bison's FCS dominance, the reigning national champions rebounded with a 25-0 rout of Missouri State.
Illinois State comes into the Fargodome seeking its first win of the season. In a start indicative of the depth of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Redbirds dropped close decisions to South Dakota and Northern Iowa.
With the FCS playoffs offering just 16 spots due to the truncated overall spring schedule, a team taking two losses will be hard-pressed to make the field. Illinois State can salvage its hopes by doing something no one has since 2016: Give North Dakota State two losses in the same season.
Illinois State at North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, March 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -12.5
When Illinois State Has the Ball
The Illinois State team that took North Dakota State to the final play of the 2014 season's national championship game put up almost 40 points per game on the road to Frisco. The Redbirds just five years later averaged less than 20 points per contest, instead relying on an outstanding defense that held opponents to just 16 points per game.
Head coach Brock Spack oversaw both versions of Illinois State football. The offensive coaching staff under Spack features co-coordinators Ghaali Muhammad-Lankford and C.J. Irvin, both in their second years in their respective roles. The Redbirds' offense is finding its identity.
Turnovers doomed Illinois State when it surrendered a 17-point lead in its season-opening loss to South Dakota. Quarterback Bryce Jefferson has thrown for just one touchdown compared to four interceptions on the young season. The rushing output has been solid at more than 140 yards per game, but with an average of only 3.7 yards per attempt. Jefferson and Pha'Leak Brown, the two primary ball carriers, are just under five yards per carry.
North Dakota State gave up considerable rushing yardage to Southern Illinois — at least, by the Bison's standards — yet still held the Salukis to 3.5 yards per carry. SIU needed a consistent passing threat to keep North Dakota State somewhat off-balance and pull off the upset.
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
In its three spring-season games, all without 2019 Walter Payton Award winner Trey Lance, North Dakota State has scored 25 points or fewer. Some regression was perhaps expected with Lance on his way to the NFL, but the dip is dramatic. One stark contrast to a season ago thus far is after Lance went the campaign without an interception, Zeb Noland has been picked off twice already.
The passing game not quite matching the productivity of the ground game, with Kobe Johnson averaging just below five yards per carry and Jalen Bussey breaking off long, explosive plays when called on, explains the step backward. Illinois State aims to further test North Dakota State, bringing in a stingy and aggressive defense.
The Redbirds allowed just 16.0 points per game in the 2019 season and, through their first two games, are surrendering only 85 rushing yards per contest. Seven Redbirds have recorded a sack, and five forced at least one quarterback hurry. How defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp opts to apply pressure on Noland early should make for an interesting plot point.
The physical and defensive style that characterizes the MVFC promises to shape this one. While the Southern Illinois loss showed unusual vulnerability for this North Dakota State team, the Bison's emphatic rebound showed their defense is as stout as ever. Rather than rolling over the schedule en route to Frisco, however, North Dakota State may need to grind its way to wins offensively.
Illinois State can limit North Dakota State's offense but could get worn down in a war of attrition before the Bison break through.
Prediction: North Dakota State 24, Illinois State 10
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.