FARGO — No matter what the oddsmakers say, North Dakota will be favored over North Dakota State next weekend.
It's only fair, because the Fighting Hawks are the better team midway through this spring season.
If you say you had that on your 2020/2021 Division I Football Championship Subdivision bingo card a month ago, you're lying.
After watching NDSU's halting 21-13 victory over depleted Illinois State at the Fargodome on Saturday, it's time to state the obvious: The Bison are an average team by their high standards.
What a time for your first career TD, Cam Miller. pic.twitter.com/BDcPUyao4g— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) March 13, 2021
Odd to say, considering the Bison are ranked fifth in the country. But anybody who's followed NDSU for the last decade can see there is something missing.
And UND, with a balanced offense led by better-than-expected redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster and a stout, experienced defense, looks like a team ready to finally win a playoff game — or two or three — nearly a decade after being postseason eligible in FCS.
COVID football. It's crazy.
If there was hope NDSU's offense could get untethered just in time for its game against a revitalized rival, it was extinguished in the second quarter against the Redbirds when after a strong first quarter the Bison netted just 26 yards of offense.
It was doused with a five-gallon pail of water on the first drive of the third quarter. That's when senior quarterback Zeb Noland underthrew a streaking Christian Watson by 10 yards, a pass that was easily intercepted and led to true freshman Cam Miller taking the reins of NDSU's offense.
Good news: Miller can move in the pocket and run, giving the Bison a dimension it badly missed with Noland.
Also good news: Miller led a game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter, finishing it with a poised six-yard TD scramble during which he patiently waited for nine seconds before taking off for the end zone.
Sobering news: Miller is a true freshman. So while NDSU head coach Matt Entz said after the game he'd evaluate the quarterback situation before making a decision on the starter for UND, he's going to have to go with the mobile Miller. The Bison will start a quarterback with almost no experience in a game that has suddenly taken on increased importance.
There were those, myself included, who thought the NDSU-UND rivalry would take a few years to get cranked up to a level approaching its former heat. It appears this week will have plenty of spice, considering UND smells Bison blood in the water.
This is UND's big chance. The Hawks will treat it as such.
Although it's always good to remember that for many of the players on both teams, there is no history. Miller graduated from Solon (Iowa) High School in the spring of 2020. He's never played against the Fighting Hawks and the two games played since the annual meetings stopped (2015, 2019) weren't particularly competitive nor compelling.
For so many, the rivalry is ancient history.
"I don't know much about it," Miller said after the game. "I know it's a really big rivalry and that's all I know."
The Bison have enough about which to worry even without added drama.
What transpired in the dome Saturday was two traditionally strong Missouri Valley Football Conference programs struggling to find their footing in this goofy season. Both were decimated by transfers and opt-outs after the fall 2020 season was aborted, and the Redbirds of head coach Brock Spack have been further crushed with injuries.
It was a fight for much of the game to see which team was going to move the ball less on offense. The Bison had a 14-0 lead after the first quarter thanks to an 85-yard punt return by sophomore Jayden Price and a 15-yard touchdown run by sophomore Kobe Johnson, following an impressive eight-play drive.
NDSU had a chance to put away the game, but Dom Gonnella was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal run from the Redbirds' 1-yard line on the first play of the second quarter. The rest of the game, in the words of Bison linebacker James Kaczor, was "a dogfight."
"I've brought teams up here in the past and if they played that way in the first quarter they would've gotten blown out," Spack said. "But that didn't happen today."
That speaks as much to the state of NDSU as it does to the grit of Illinois State. This Bison team just doesn't have the horsepower to bury opponents. Running the ball is a strain. Passing is laborious. The reasons for that are many, but that is the state of affairs.
UND doesn't care. Nor should they. The season is being played, so play the season.
"We got to continue to get better. What an opportunity. We get another home game. We're going to treat it like every other game. We have a process. We have our routine," Entz said. "It will be a little unique because we will be in spring break. But we've already addressed it. We've identified the white elephant. That's not an excuse. We're going to have our kids here all week. They are excited to play a team as good as UND. I know both teams will be prepared to play."
NDSU will be the underdog to UND. The champs are sputtering, their in-state rivals are rolling. Have to admit it, this is one we didn't see coming.