At least this week the University of North Dakota got the moose off its campus. It was seen wandering around the practice football field early Tuesday morning, although it took a parade of minds many hours and some anesthetic drugs to figure out how to get Marty Moose safely back in the wild.
On Saturday, the UND offense wasn’t as fortunate against another large animal. The Bison were everywhere at Gate City Bank Field and the Fighting Hawks found little room to maneuver in a 38-7 North Dakota State victory. There would be no relocation of Bison defenders back to the prairie.
Afterward, the Bison raised the Nickel … they celebrated in-state dominance … no they didn’t do that, either. Call it like it was: a non-conference win over an opponent that has some work to do before it begins Missouri Valley Football Conference play next year.
As for the Bison? The quarterback is good. The defense is, well, we really don’t know yet. How about promising?
It has limited opponents to just one offensive touchdown in eight quarters. Butler scored on a fumble return in the 57-10 win last week at Target Field. UND put together one solid drive all day and this game was a snoozer by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.
But for all the laurels, we present a word of caution: it’s way too early to say this year’s version of the Bison defense is like its standout predecessors.
New defensive coordinator David Braun hasn’t made the calls yet in the Valley, having last been in charge of a defense in 2014 at Division II Winona State (Minn.).
Keeping Butler's offense out of the end zone was nice, but it was also a young Bulldogs team from the non-scholarship Pioneer League. And the effort on Saturday came against a backup UND quarterback who was making his first career FCS start.
Andrew Zimmerman had a couple of effective quick throws over the middle, but that was about it. If the Bison defensive philosophy is bend but don’t break, they rarely had to bend.
“I just think they’re pretty stout,” said UND wide receiver Noah Wanzek. “They have a lot of good playmakers up front. I felt pretty good going into the game and during the game with our matchups out wide, but we just left a few plays out there.”
One was when Wanzek, on a wide receiver pass, didn’t see a wide open teammate downfield near the end zone. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t have mattered.
It didn’t feel like a blowout in the making during the week for the Bison players, however, who went into Saturday wondering what UND was going to throw at them. Almost everything was on the table, but not much was on film with Zimmerman.
“You don’t have a great population of plays,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “We didn't know from a defensive standpoint what they were going to do offensively, so I thought the best way to attack it was to keep our defense off the field and make sure our offense moved the chains and they did a great job.”
The offense did its job. The defensive phrase of note during practice this week was, “What if?”
What if UND came out in some offensive set that it never showed in the prior couple of years? What if receiver Brock Boltmann played quarterback more than the one play he did? What if Zimmerman could get to multiple receivers?
“What if” turned to “Oh no.”
Oh no, there’s that typical Bison defense. The Fighting Hawks struggled on the ground, and that spelled trouble. Top back James Johannesson had just 21 yards on seven carries, with his only carry of note being a three-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
The Bison did most of this with one of the top defensive players in the FCS on the bench. Free safety James Hendricks left the game in the first half for an undisclosed injury. Asked if it was concussion symptoms afterward, Entz said, “I don’t know.”
The fallout from it could come next week if Hendricks does not play against the University of Delaware. It’s on the road at a Colonial Athletic Association foe before thousands of fans where a veteran senior is so helpful.
On the flipside, sophomore Dawson Weber from Elk Grove, Calif., filled in admirably for Hendricks. He finished third on the team in tackles with five, including one tackle for lost yardage.
“It’s always a big deal to lose a captain,” Entz said of Hendricks. “Where I’m excited is we had adversity and we handled it. I don’t think you saw any lack of play or busted assignments out there.”
Michael Tutsie had two interceptions. The sophomore was tough to figure out for UND. Tutsie wasn’t ready to crown this year’s defense as equal to last year, but said some things remain the same.
“We’re this year’s defense,” he said. “We have aspects from last year, we’re always going to play fast, physical and play together. That’s year in and year out.”
After two games, all looks well. But it’s also two games against poor offenses.
“We have plenty of room to continue to improve,” Entz said. “I think they have improved from Week 1 to Week 2 . I told you guys a week ago, I don't believe the most improvement occurs between Week 1 and Week 2. It happens over the course of an entire season.”