Until taking on the University of Delaware this weekend, the last time a North Dakota State football team ventured so far east was a road trip and then some. The Bison boarded a train in Fargo on a Tuesday, arrived in Washington, D.C., on a Thursday and played George Washington University on a Friday.
That is where the Bison dream of an unbeaten season took a dive. After six straight victories, GWU shut them out 20-0 despite 300 visiting fans making waves of noise. It was a struggle because “of the alert George Washington eleven whose speedy backs, flitting like ghosts in the floodlights, pierced a stubborn defense,” a Forum story read.
Then, like a minor league baseball team, the Bison remained on the East Coast and headed to West Point, N.Y., to play Army the following week. The Cadets were good hosts, putting the visitors up in barracks until the game that Saturday.
Apparently, the long trip took a toll. Army won 52-0.
That was 1932.
Forum newspaper reports pointed to a different time in history. One story detailed several NDSU players voting by absentee ballot for the presidential election, which easily went to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another story told of players being “mentally strained” after the long train ride to Washington, D.C.
Perhaps the Blue Hens took a train to Fargo last year instead of a charter flight. Whatever the case, NDSU suffocated the tired-looking Delaware gridders 38-10 on a homecoming weekend and the hosts didn’t even have the good sense to throw a banquet and dance for them afterward.
Yes, times have changed, particularly with NDSU’s schedule.
The first-time trip to a team from the Colonial Athletic Association will be the sixth time the Bison have played on the East Coast, with the last time at Georgia Southern in 2006. Before that it was at Shippensburg (Pa.) for a Division II semifinal playoff game, at George Washington in 1937 and the two games in 1932.
The Blue Hens will get their chance for a do-over Saturday when the Bison travel to Newark, Delaware, for a noon (CST) kickoff at Delaware Stadium. The victory last year was as dominating as the Bison had against a highly regarded opponent all season.
NDSU held Delaware to 57 yards rushing and 11-of-29 passing. Asked this week what has to change from last year, Blue Hens head coach Danny Rocco said, “A whole lot of things.”
“Well, yeah, we got pummeled up there last year,” Rocco said, “We have to do a whole lot of things differently. We have to get some first downs. We have to control the ball. We have to get stops on defense. We have to force some punts. We have to get off to a fast start. There’s a few.”
Whatever the outcome against the Blue Hens, the Bison are scheduled to fly back after the game via a charter from Delta Airlines. That would be unlike the 1932 game at George Washington, where a banquet greeted the Bison the day after the game.
Like NDSU did when it visited the White House last March, the 1932 players saw all the Washington, D.C. sites. Then it was on to a banquet given by the Washington North Dakota Club who “royally entertained the touring Fargoans,” according to a Forum report.
A dance in honor of the team closed the day’s activities for the North Dakota Agricultural College, as NDSU was known then. Before heading to West Point, the Bison stopped in New York via a ferry, where the “New York Bison” club hosted the team for a party.
It most likely wasn’t the party that Minneapolis threw two weeks ago for the Bison season opener against Butler University (Ind.) at Target Field. But that is the state of the NDSU scheduling model in an era when very few Division I FBS teams will answer a call from the 701 area code.
There was a time when playing regional FBS schools like Minnesota, Colorado State and Iowa State was doable, but NDSU’s 9-3 record vs. the FBS erased those possibilities. At least the Bison have Colorado on the schedule in 2024. Otherwise, it’s at Oregon next season and at Arizona in 2022.
It makes looking east for a good FCS game higher on the NDSU radar. That’s fine with athletic director Matt Larsen, who is a fan of good interconference FCS matchups.
“We need to play each other,” Larsen said. “Especially when you get down to seeding and playoffs, if there’s not enough interconference play, it’s hard for the committee to determine who are the best 24 teams.”
On the flip side, it’s tougher for Midwest and West Coast teams to schedule their FCS brothers on the East Coast because of the geographical imbalance in the subdivision. There are simply more teams on the East Coast.
“Just the sheer number of teams, it makes scheduling easier,” Larsen said. “There are so many more schools within driving distance of each other. You can bus.”
It’s about as close as Larsen will probably get to his old stomping grounds. Delaware is less than 200 miles from Stony Brook University (N.Y.), his alma mater and he has friends from New York and Connecticut coming to the game.
“They’ve been hearing a lot about NDSU,” Larsen said. “Now they get to see it.”
They won’t be alone. Around 20,000 are expected to fill Delaware Stadium, including a decent NDSU traveling party considering the distance. And nobody has to take the train unless they want to do something radically different.
Times have changed.