Bison look to continue the nation's longest winning streak in their first road trip of the year
The dominance of North Dakota State football over the past decade has been discussed ad nauseam, and deservedly so, but here's some additional context to consider: Nov. 4, 2017 was the date of the last Bison loss.
North Dakota State has become so dominant that a never-in-doubt, 25-7 win like it collected in the spring 2021 opener against Youngstown State feels like vulnerability. The Bison previously won a 39-28 decision over Central Arkansas in October, another double-digit-point victory that was "close" enough to suggest maybe, sometime soon, North Dakota State might actually lose another game.
Southern Illinois gets to take the next crack at ending the streak. The Salukis fell from the FCS STATS Top 25 after being blind-sided by North Dakota. There really could be no more effective way of getting things back on track than beating the sport's juggernaut for its first loss in almost 40 months.
North Dakota State at Southern Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Feb. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -16.5
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
Quarterback Zeb Noland's debut starting in place of NFL-bound Trey Lance was subdued, with the Iowa State transfer going 9-of-18 for 74 yards. Of course, the passing game is less a necessity and more a luxury when the run game is eating up 6.1 yards per carry, as the multifaceted Bison ground game did against Youngstown State.
Primary ball carriers Kobe Johnson and Jalen Bussey combined for three touchdowns. Both averaged better than seven yards per carry.
That looms large for a Southern Illinois defense that gave up considerable chunks to North Dakota's multi-dimensional rushing attack. The Salukis were gashed for almost six yards per carry in the season-opening loss. Putting the game on Noland's thus far unproven arm seems like the best bet for Southern Illinois to mount an upset bid, but is so much easier said than done against the stout North Dakota State offensive line.
When Southern Illinois Has the Ball
Like North Dakota State, Southern Illinois played a single fall game before jumping into its spring slate. The Salukis won with a fourth-quarter rally against a good Southeast Missouri State team back in October, but struggled last week against North Dakota due in large part to a bevy of turnovers.
The Fighting Hawks were able to cash in three takeaways, creating separation in a second-half romp. Turnovers are an unfortunate theme for the Salukis in the very limited sample size 2020-21 offers: quarterback Kare Lyles threw two in the fall against the Bears as well.
Lyles avoided throwing any picks against North Dakota, but Nic Baker was picked off twice. North Dakota is adept at creating turnover opportunities, coming up with 17 picks and forcing 18 fumbles during the 2019 season. Ball control is critical if SIU is to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
Extrapolating too much from the season opener can be dangerous. However, it was clear against Youngstown State that the North Dakota State offense is not as multifaceted without Trey Lance. It's not necessary for the Bison to rack up big yards on passing plays when they are moving the ball on the ground, it's just not conducive to massive blowouts since possessions would logically last longer and result in fewer of them.
Southern Illinois hurt itself with a bad third quarter against North Dakota, and was decimated by turnovers. Avoiding that misfortune is critical, but a tough ask against the North Dakota State defense.
Prediction: North Dakota State 34, Southern Illinois 10
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.