The defending FCS champions return to the field after three weeks on Saturday as the North Dakota State Bison travel 500 miles southeast to face the Northern Iowa Panthers in a key Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup.
After a statement 34-13 win over then-No. 2 North Dakota on March 20, the Bison's game against South Dakota was canceled for COVID-19 protocols, and they followed that with a scheduled off-week. They'll need that rest heading into their toughest part of the schedule to close the regular season.
Although the Panthers are just 3-3, they're far more talented than their record would indicate. They entered the spring season at No. 3 in Athlon Sports' Top 25 and were the only program with three preseason All-Americans. Their three losses have all been heartbreakers, too, coming by a combined total of 12 points.
Although the Bison sit atop the FCS Power Poll, a win on Saturday will be crucial ahead of their matchup with No. 3 South Dakota State on April 17. Two more wins would secure a 10th straight MVFC title, while a loss in either game will relegate NDSU to fighting for one of the six at-large playoff bids.
North Dakota State at Northern Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, April 10 at 5 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -8
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
The Bison have dominated this season by running the ball as efficiently as ever. They haven't had one bell-cow back but instead four impact rushers. Kobe Johnson (61 att., 271 yds., 2 TDs) and Dominic Gonnella (47, 248) have gotten the most touches, but Jalen Bussey (26, 245, 3) leads the team in yards per carry, and fullback Hunter Luepke broke out for 190 yards and three touchdowns in his spring debut against North Dakota.
Northern Iowa makes for a particularly intriguing matchup because the Panthers rank second in the conference and 14th overall with just 100.5 rushing yards allowed per game. UNI came into the season known for its defense, especially with standout defensive tackle Jared Brinkman and linebacker Bryce Flater. Stopping the run will be crucial, as the Panthers got blown out in their 2019 matchup with NDSU when the Bison ran for 352 yards on 51 carries.
Slowing the Bison's ground attack will be even more critical because NDSU's passing game has been more hit than miss this season after moving on from first-round hopeful Trey Lance. Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland is just 48 of 83 for 567 yards with more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (4), while true freshman Cam Miller is 8-for-13 as a passer and more of a threat on the ground. UNI can bring the pressure, too, with a conference-leading 16 sacks through six spring games.
When Northern Iowa Has the Ball
The Panthers were hoping to lean on quarterback Will McElvain this season, but he's barely completing half of his passes (50.9 percent) and has just one touchdown. While there hasn't been consistency, the positive spin is that he's been able to break off big plays: Quan Hampton, Deion McShane, Isaiah Weston, and Tysen Kershaw each have receptions of at least 50 yards this season.
UNI has been able to get more stability out of the 1-2 backfield punch of Tyler Hoosman (66 att., 303 yds., 4 TDs) and Dom Williams (69, 245, 2). Neither has been incredibly efficient nor likely to pick up chunk plays, but they've been dependable in the red zone.
Meanwhile, North Dakota State may not have nearly the defensive firepower that the Panthers have, but the Bison are not far behind at just 108.2 rushing yards allowed per game. They're third in the MVFC in scoring defense (16.5 ppg) despite being one of the weakest FCS teams this spring in the red zone; they've allowed 10 touchdowns and a field goal to the opposition in 11 trips inside the 20-yard line. Keep an eye on defensive end Spencer Waege (3.5 sacks) or safety Dom Jones (2 INTs) to make a big play.
This should be a defensive struggle between two of the best teams not just in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but the FCS as a whole. However, the edge goes to the road team, given its dominance on the ground, especially against the Panthers. With a low-scoring atmosphere, one or two plays could be the difference, and the Bison have more game-changers in their backfield.
Prediction: North Dakota State 20, Northern Iowa 13
(Top photo by Tim Sanger, courtesy of gobison.com)