CARBONDALE, Ill. — North Dakota State's most effective offensive play was a Hail Mary pass. It came at the end of the first half and, for an extended moment, the touchdown it produced allowed a glimmer of hope for the Bison.
It was only a mirage. Quarterback Zeb Noland's 37-yard tipped TD pass to Jake Lippe that pulled NDSU within 17-7 at halftime provided no more of a spark than a soggy match in a wind storm.
It couldn't overcome the 29 minutes, 56 seconds of poor football before it, nor the 30 minutes of poor football that followed.
The once-invincible Bison have issues.
Yes, one bad game doesn't define this program 25% No, the loss to Southern Illinois was just too ugly 62% Don't care, the fall season is what matters 13%
Do you think NDSU is still a national championship contender in this spring FCS season?
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Yes, one bad game doesn't define this program
No, the loss to Southern Illinois was just too ugly
Don't care, the fall season is what matters
NDSU's Football Championship Subdivision-record 39-game winning streak came to a hideous end Saturday in an unlikely place in an unlikely way at an unlikely time — a warm late February afternoon in a sparsely populated Saluki Stadium to a Southern Illinois team that stunk a week earlier.
You figured this spring FCS season was going to be a little funky? You had no idea.
Southern Illinois — not South Dakota State or Northern Iowa or James Madison or an FBS team — thumped the Bison 38-14 to give NDSU its first loss since Nov. 4, 2017. The Bison looked like they stayed on the bus for the first half and got what they deserved. The Salukis dominated in every possible way. This wasn't a fluke, or a turnover-filled disaster, or an excuse-inducing stumble.
It was a butt-kicking.
Southern Illinois did to NDSU what NDSU has done to so many others the last 10 years. The Salukis physically grinded the Bison into powder, running up 443 total yards and a 41:26-18:34 advantage in time of possession. Southern Illinois simply suffocated NDSU.
And that the Bison lost, a national story, might not be the biggest story in the long term in north Fargo. They were going to lose at some point and it was likely a loss or two was coming in this oddball spring season.
The bigger point is that this NDSU team has problems, starting with the offense and laser-pointed at the quarterback.
On this day, the issues in no way stopped there. The Bison were uninspired, undisciplined and hugely overconfident.
NDSU safety Michael Tutsie said twice after the game that the Bison players thought they could "roll their helmets out onto the field" and win the game. This is probably not surprising, given NDSU has a roster filled with players who'd never lost a college football game and have won multiple national championships. The danger in that way of thinking was exhibited for all to see.
Three offsides calls in the first half (in a dead silent stadium), 10 players on the field for a punt, a defensive back half-heartedly jogging to the end zone after an interception he figured was coming back because of an offsides call ... shockingly loosey-goosey stuff for a program that prides itself on discipline.
Now, about that offense.
Bison head coach Matt Entz after the game defended starting quarterback Zeb Noland, said no position group played well and refused to point a finger at the offense or the QB. But the Bison offense couldn't stay on the field, going 4 of 10 on third-down conversions, and clearly lacks any rhythm or consistency, much less the explosiveness NDSU has displayed for years.
And when it did get a halting drive started while the game was still within reach in the third quarter, Noland fumbled away the ball after getting smeared on a Saluki blitz.
It's not all on the quarterback — it never is — but after two games it's obvious Noland doesn't have the mobility, and certainly not the ability to flat-out run, to keep defenses honest. Where Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz, Easton Stick and Trey Lance would punish a defense with their feet, Noland mostly has to sit in the pocket and find a receiver.
Even when he does, frankly, he hasn't been all that accurate. For the next six games teams will make Noland beat them and until NDSU coaches figure out a way the quarterback can do that, the Bison offense will struggle.
This spring season was always going to be weird. But if you had NDSU getting embarrassed by a team that a week ago got embarrassed by league newcomer North Dakota, your weirdness radar is better than most.
Oh, and about that league newcomer: The Fighting Hawks appear at this early stage to be the best team in the conference and might snag the No. 1 ranking in the FCS poll that comes out Monday.
The Bison, meanwhile, are left with little margin for error in this truncated COVID season if a fourth straight national championship and ninth in 10 years is still the goal.
Might want to pump the brakes on that conversation. After what transpired against Southern Illinois, a title should be the last thing on the Bison's minds.