The play that ultimately was the dagger for North Dakota State was a 43-yard bomb that got Sam Houston on the doorstep to a go-ahead touchdown on Sunday afternoon. It came with 4:25 remaining in the fourth quarter and the home crowd at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas, sensed that the Bison were on the ropes.
They were. Ironically, it was the kind of play NDSU was so good at this season at the end of the first half. The Bison did it four times in their 10 games: a final play Hail Mary to Jake Lippe at Southern Illinois, an 81-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Henderson at Missouri State with eight seconds left, a 63-yard touchdown to Christian Watson against the University of North Dakota and a 61-yard pass to Watson with under a minute remaining at Northern Iowa.
Unfortunately for the Bison, that was about the most consistent element of their passing game. The uncanny ability to strike right before halftime.
The 24-20 loss to the Bearkats in the Division I FCS quarterfinals was another lesson in what the Bison need to accomplish in the next four months. For the first time since 2010, they lacked the threat of throwing downfield for four quarters.
And this is not all on the quarterback’s plate, either. A passing attack is an 11-player maneuver with good blocking at the point of attack, the receivers’ ability to get open and the quarterbacks delivering the ball on time. Trey Lance had a Big Ten-like offensive line in front of him in 2019 and was hardly touched all season.
“We need a little more experience at quarterback, that’s for sure,” said NDSU associate head coach Randy Hedberg, who works with the quarterbacks. “I kind of lose sight of this, most people do, but Cam Miller is a true freshman. He’s still learning how to play. He has a great future I think but he’s still a young quarterback. A year ago he was playing high school football and at our level I think that’s really difficult.”
Timing was not NDSU’s friend. The unexpected departure of Lance to the NFL Draft after his redshirt freshman season threw a wrench in the quarterback succession plan. The Bison for a couple of years knew Carson Wentz was going to take over for Brock Jensen. They knew Easton Stick was the guy the moment they signed him to a letter of intent.
The rapid rise of Lance was about as much of a surprise as him declaring for the draft after 16 games as a starter. NDSU didn't expect him to be so good, so soon. Wentz, Stick and Lance were all mentored by a veteran leader. In 2018, the Bison brought Lance on road trips even though they knew he wasn’t going to play just to hang around Stick.
Miller had one game with Lance last fall.
“That was really critical in Easton and Trey’s development,” Hedberg said. “I think Cam can take some of that from Trey in his time in the fall and put it to use going forward over the summer and into the fall. I think there are lessons there. Those guys are always a great resource for our quarterbacks. They’re always available.”
Starting with the first day of practice in August, it will be a competition between Miller, Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson and incoming freshman Cole Payton from Omaha. Redshirt freshman Logan Graetz announced on Twitter Monday he was entering the transfer portal.
“It will be competitive,” Hedberg said.
It stands to reason those four will have a deeper receiving corps to throw to with injured receivers Phoenix Sproles and Zach Mathis coming back. Incoming freshman Bryce Lance may have a chance to play right away. Whatever the case, the stats need to improve.
The Bison were 96 of 189 passing this spring for 51%. They had 10 interceptions and nine touchdown passes. When effective, the general goal of the West Coast offense is around a 65% completion rate.
In 2010, NDSU quarterbacks completed 52% of their throws. Jensen developed into a passer his sophomore year and had a 67% accuracy clip. The NDSU quarterbacks were never below 61% until this spring.
“We just have to get more efficient,” Hedberg said. “Some of that has to do with the fact we didn’t anticipate 2020 being this way at quarterback because of our youth. You lose a young man to the NFL Draft and then you drop into your depth. It makes it a little tougher.”