A matchup scheduled for April 3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference instead goes down in the first round of the unprecedented, spring FCS playoffs.
North Dakota, a breakout surprise in this historic season, returns to action for the first time in more than a month when it hosts Valley counterparts Missouri State. The Bears come into the playoffs with a 5-4 record that belies how well they have played this spring — emphasis on spring.
Under first-year head coach Bobby Petrino, Missouri State played and lost three games in the fall that officially counted against the Bears' record. In the spring campaign, however, Missouri State went 5-1, with the only loss coming to North Dakota State. Its wins include a road victory over Northern Iowa and defeat of fellow playoff team Southern Illinois.
While Missouri State rolls into the postseason, North Dakota aims to shake off any potential rust. The Fighting Hawks started the season 4-0, lost to in-state rival North Dakota State, and have been off due to COVID-19 issues around the Valley since March 20.
FCS Playoffs First Round: Missouri State at North Dakota
Kickoff: Saturday, April 24 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota -7
When Missouri State Has the Ball
In two different stints as head coach at Louisville, Bobby Petrino was renowned for his offensive acumen — most notably the breakout of 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Missouri State has relied considerably more on its defense in Year 1 with Petrino, scoring 30 points just twice in nine games.
Still, the Bears have a capable, three-man rushing rotation of Tobias Little, Jeremiah Wilson and Celdon Manning, all of whom exceeded 200 yards on the season behind an offensive line anchored by All-MVFC selection Landon Bebee. After some interception issues in the fall and through Missouri State's season opener, quarterback Jaden Johnson went three games without throwing a pick and finished the regular season tossing two scores against Youngstown State.
Johnson finished the YSU win after Matt Struck sustained an injury early on. Whoever starts against North Dakota, limiting turnovers is critical. In five games, North Dakota gained 12 takeaways.
When North Dakota Has the Ball
Powering North Dakota's impressive start was running back Otis Weah, a first-team All-MVFC honoree and the Fighting Hawks' leading rusher at 570 yards and seven touchdowns. A powerful runner, Weah works well in concert with the smaller Luke Skokna.
Talented freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster threw at least one touchdown pass in four of five games, and had three in two contests. His first posteason puts Schuster up against a formidable test in Missouri State's defense, which features two defensive backs boasting three interceptions each: Montrae Braswell and Jeremy Webb.
Missouri State's defense also has one of the premier pass rushers in the playoffs, Kevin Ellis. The All-MVFC selection has six sacks and three quarterback hurries on the season.
A month away from competition could be either a boon or a bust for North Dakota. While the additional time to heal from any lingering wear customary in a football season could be a benefit, recapturing the rhythm that had the Fighting Hawks challenging for the No. 1 ranking in the nation back in March might be a difficult ask — particularly against an opponent playing as well as Missouri State.
Dictating the scoring pace will be critical. A low-scoring contest works to the Bears' favor, while the Fighting Hawks will want to push the score into the 30s. We should see early who has the upper hand.
Prediction: Missouri State 21, North Dakota 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of @UNDfootball)