Fargo

It was open mic night Saturday when referee Andy Speciale could be heard over the Fargodome loudspeakers telling his fellow officials that they'd better review a spot that left North Dakota State short of a first down early in the third quarter.

"We better take a look at this one guys, from a PR perspective," Speciale's voice boomed throughout the dome.

Bison fans, at least those who bothered to come back for the second half, howled with a mixture of incredulity and laughter at Speciale's insightful miscue. It's nice to know football officials demand replays simply for the sake of public relations, to keep the home folks happy.

Alas, the replay showed the spot was accurate and NDSU didn't get a first down. Another punt was forthcoming.

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It was a bit of comic relief in a day that sorely needed some, from a Bison perspective. The home team struggled to score points against a Missouri State team it was favored to beat by 40, a game in which NDSU coaches were confident enough of an easy victory that it suited a gaggle of true freshmen expected to see their first game action.

The final score was 22-0, a solid enough victory for a mortal college football program but one that had anybody who watched it scratching their heads over the difficulty it took NDSU to finally shake the Bears.

That includes NDSU players, by the way.

"At halftime we talked that it felt like we were losing almost," Bison quarterback Trey Lance said.

They weren't. NDSU led 15-0 and was dominating in every way, but welcome to the expectations monster that's been built here. The Bison have been stomping teams that are supposed to be really good so when their offense sputters and stalls against one that isn't, the obvious question is:

OH MY GOSH, WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE BISON???

Possibly nothing more than a young team that didn't come out with its usual fire and brimstone after a grinding five-game stretch and one week prior to the game of the year, decade and century at South Dakota State.

"You're dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds and you're up and down like the stock market," Bison head coach Matt Entz said.

Playing Missouri State maybe felt like having a birthday one day before Christmas. The day gets lost in the shuffle with the promise of bigger things to come.

"I didn't feel like there was a lack of focus. I felt like we had a good week. Potentially a little lack of energy and that's on me," Entz said. "It's my job to get these guys ready to go. But I challenged the seniors as well. We need the 10, 12 seniors we have to help me get these guys locked in and ready to go."

It's not like NDSU was horrible or that it felt like it had any real chance of losing the game. The end zone was just a rumor to Missouri State's offense and the Bison offense racked up 447 yards and didn't have a turnover. That's usually a formula for a 48-point outburst.

North Dakota State's Braylon Henderson reaches for a pass in the end zone while being defended by Missouri State's Titus Wall at the Fargodome on Saturday. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Braylon Henderson reaches for a pass in the end zone while being defended by Missouri State's Titus Wall at the Fargodome on Saturday. David Samson / The Forum

But NDSU was sloppy with nine penalties for 75 yards and the outstanding offensive line never established its dominance in the run game. The whole day was just off. Not by a country mile, but by enough to keep the Bison from getting first downs and finishing drives.

"A win is a win. Never take a win for granted. I think that's the biggest thing I've learned from (former Bison quarterback) Easton (Stick) and even the seniors this year. Half the teams in the country lost. We're grateful to be not on that side of it," Lance said. "Obviously we didn't score as many points as we wanted to, but we had a lot of yards of offense. I think we were still dynamic, made a lot of explosive plays. We just need to finish a little better. It comes back to the little things."

Lance threw 31 passes, the most for a Bison quarterback since Stick threw 38 times in a loss to James Madison in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals in December 2016. Lance admitted it wasn't the type of game he envisioned, nor likely did the Bison coaches. It seemed this would've been the perfect opportunity to take a big lead and get backup Zeb Noland enough action to throw 8 or 10 passes.

It was clear by halftime that wasn't going to happen.

That led to local media asking Entz a whole bunch of questions after the game that leaned toward "what went wrong?"

"I knew it was coming. I know you guys well enough," Entz said. "There's no such thing as a bad win. I'm going to go home and enjoy this one and get to work tomorrow. Half the teams in the country got beat. We didn't. We won. We should enjoy it, but we will learn from it."

The Bison had better learn fast. Up next is archrival SDSU, the third-ranked team in the country that wants desperately to beat NDSU and take a top-two playoff seeding. If the Jackrabbits' goal is to get the Bison out of the Fargodome for a playoff game, next weekend's showdown provides an opportunity to make it happen.

It is going to be, in the words of former Bison coach Craig Bohl, a slobberknocker.

"I didn't even know who we were playing next," Entz said.

Do you believe him?

Lance was straightforward.

"We will be ready to go," he said.

That'd be the wise approach. A sleepwalk might get it done against Missouri State, but it won't against the Jackrabbits.