If there's one constant about FCS college football, it's that North Dakota State will win the national championship. Seasons change, babies are born, and the Bison bring home trophies.
NDSU is not out of the title hunt yet — not by a long shot — but last week's beatdown loss at Southern Illinois has to rank as one of the biggest upsets of the COVID-19 era. In a year full of chalk — the Lakers, Dodgers, and Alabama won titles, and the Super Bowl was Brady-Mahomes — no one could have seen a 38-17 loss for the program that has won eight of the last nine national titles in the subdivision. The loss also snapped the Bison's 39-game winning streak, the longest in FCS history and third-longest in Division I.
The Bison will lick their wounds as they head on the road once again, this time to face Bobby Petrino's Missouri State Bears. After playing three games in the fall — including two against Central Arkansas — the Bears edged Western Illinois 30-24 last weekend to open their spring season.
The Bears, which have not finished higher than second to last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference since 2013, may not be the toughest opponent on paper for the Bison, but NDSU will have to win convincingly to maintain its No. 3 ranking in the latest Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll.
Can North Dakota State rally for a 10th straight win against this conference rival? Or is this the beginning of the end for the FCS' foremost powerhouse?
North Dakota State at Missouri State
Kickoff: Saturday, March 6 at 3 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -18
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
Replacing soon-to-be first-round NFL draft pick Trey Lance was never going to be an easy task for former Iowa State transfer quarterback Zeb Noland, but this spring season has been disappointing, to say the least. The Bison cruised to a 25-7 victory in the spring opener on the strength of the running game, and Noland was just 9-of-18 for 74 yards, with no touchdowns or turnovers. He was just 13-of-24 for 159 yards, with a touchdown and interception, in last week's loss.
NDSU can win without a dynamic passing attack. Former Bison starters Easton Stick and Carson Wentz didn't have Lance's physical skills. But lacking much of a threat at all becomes an issue when NDSU falls behind early, which is what happened against the Salukis. Noland's connection with Christian Watson, who has been held to just two catches this spring, will be worth monitoring.
The Bison did pick up 5.2 yards per carry last week, but most of that came on a 63-yard run by Jalen Bussey. Otherwise, they averaged just 1.8 yards per carry. The ability to gain yards in chunks is what helped propel them against Youngstown State in the spring opener. They had five rushes of at least 10 yards, and Kobe Johnson led the way with 115 yards on 16 attempts.
One of Missouri State's surprising strengths this season has been its rush defense. They rank 15th in the FCS at 90.8 yards per game allowed after finishing 110th out of 124 teams (225.1 ypg) in 2019. We're still in small sample size territory — and really will be all season — but avoiding giving up the big plays that plagued the Bears last season would go a long way to slowing this Bison offense.
When Missouri State Has the Ball
Petrino finally picked up his first win at Missouri State last week, and it came on the road. He entered the season without much clarity at the quarterback position, but he may have a keeper in Southern Miss transfer Jaden Johnson, whose up-and-down performance against Western Illinois was his best to date.
Johnson was 18-of-28 passing for 278 yards, with a touchdown and two picks. He also added 11 carries for 60 yards, disregarding his three sacks. Johnson had an especially strong connection with Damoriea Vick, who hauled in six passes for 138 yards, including a 74-yard play.
North Dakota State will need a much better showing on defense after Southern Illinois' Nic Baker picked them apart for 254 yards on 17-of-23 passing and a touchdown with no interceptions. One key for the Bison can be getting back to their ball-hawking ways. NDSU tied for seventh in FCS in 2019 with 17 interceptions, and has just two so far this spring. Johnson could be an easy target too, as he has already tossed six picks.
Once we get past the shock of North Dakota State losing — and losing badly — we still need to see the Bison for who they are: an FCS playoff heavyweight. Head coach Matt Entz should have this team well prepared, and the program hasn't lost back-to-back games since October 2009. Playing against a Bobby Petrino-led team makes this game all the more interesting, but NDSU should enjoy a sizeable talent advantage.