FARGO — North Dakota State redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance is off to an efficient start, completing nearly 74 percent of his passes through five games.
The five players lining up in front of the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Lance have played an important role in that success, keeping the heat off Lance. The Bison have allowed five sacks through five games with a total loss of 13 yards.
"That's probably the biggest thing, being able to keep Trey relatively untouched in the backfield," Bison head coach Matt Entz said at his Monday press conference. "He's really been untouched when we drop back to pass or move the pocket."
Entz singled out left tackle Dillon Radunz and center Karson Schoening as offensive linemen who particularly played well last Saturday against No. 10-ranked Illinois State, a 37-3 victory in Normal, Ill.
"I thought he did an unbelievable job up front, probably his best game potentially as a Bison. Unbelievably physical," Entz said of the 6-foot-6, 298-pound Radunz.
The Bison offensive line is expected to face a tough challenge at 1 p.m. Saturday, facing Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Northern Iowa at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The Panthers (3-2, 1-0 MVFC) have been salty against the run, limiting opponents to 95.2 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, the No. 1-ranked Bison (5-0, 1-0) are averaging 288 rushing yards per contest through five games. Which team controls the line of scrimmage is expected to play a critical role in Saturday's outcome.
"Both teams rely heavily on the line of scrimmage," Entz said. "We both put heavy emphasis on recruiting the best defensive linemen, offensive linemen that are out there."
Radunz and senior right guard Zack Johnson are the two returning full-time starters on the offensive line from last season. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Johnson played right tackle last season, but moved inside with junior Cordell Volson taking over at right tackle. The 6-foot-6, 309-pound Volson was the team's sixth offensive lineman last season.
"A lot of those kids played last year," Entz said. "They had a lot of experience and valuable snaps."
The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Schoening is in his first season as the starter at center. Sophomore Nash Jensen (6-4, 326) is starting at left guard for a team that is averaging 41.2 points per game.
Entz added the tight ends and fullbacks have meshed with the offensive line to help open running lanes in the ground game and protect the quarterback. Entz credited Bison offensive line coach AJ Blazek and offensive coordinator/tight ends and fullbacks coach Tyler Roehl for their work.
"Those two position groups have to be able to work together," Entz said. "I'm impressed with how fast we're playing. I love the fact that when you see explosive plays, you see 11 guys running downfield. ... Offensively, we're sprinting to hit people. You can see it in our run game, even see it in our receivers."
Entz said the Bison had 10 explosive plays on offense against Illinois State last Saturday. The team defines pass plays that are at least 15 yards and run plays that are at least 12 yards as explosive. NDSU allowed only one sack (for a loss of one yard) against the Redbirds, who had 20 sacks this season heading into that game.
Bison senior running back Dimitri Williams worked out before the game at Illinois State. Entz is hopeful Williams can return for Saturday's game homecoming against Northern Iowa. Senior linebacker Jaxon Brown didn't play against the Redbirds with a foot injury and is expected to play against the Panthers.
Sophomore defensive end Bartholomew Ogbu (6-2, 241) also missed last weekend with an ankle injury. His playing status for Northern Iowa was uncertain as of Monday, Entz said.
The Bison have won 26 consecutive games, tying James Madison (2016-17) for the second-longest winning streak in NCAA Division I FCS history. NDSU also has the longest FCS winning streak, winning 33 in a row from 2012-14. Northern Iowa ended the 33-game winning streak in 2014 with a 23-3 victory in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
"We haven't talked about it," Entz said of the current winning streak. "Our No. 1 priority is getting a big win over the University of Northern Iowa."