The numbers of significance across the FCS heading into the Missouri Valley Football Conference season for North Dakota State were obvious: eight and nine.
That would be eight national championships in the last nine years for a Bison program that appeared loaded last fall. But, one by one, pieces of personnel began to fall off the bandwagon.
Quarterback, gone. Running back, portal. Left tackle, gone. Center, graduated. Defensive tackle, graduated. Linebacker, graduated. Running back, injured. Running back, injured. Wide receiver, injured. Cornerback, portal. Right guard, injured. Linebacker, injured.
In order, that would be Trey Lance, Adam Cofield, Dillon Radunz, Karson Schoening, Matt Biegler, Aaron Mercadel, Seth Wilson, Kobe Johnson, Phoenix Sproles, Josh Hayes, Grey Zabel and James Kaczor.
And that doesn’t include a few backups who would have played roles, most notably in practice and team maturity.
Nope. This team was not built for nine in 10. NDSU did its best to play as full of a fall schedule as it could, and that appeared to create other issues.
“I honestly believe that the way the fall went down and we found out our season was canceled, we had a lot of kids that really never bought in or trusted the fact we were going to play,” said head coach Matt Entz. “We found out in the fall from social media. I think they kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under them. It was tough to motivate yourself, crank it up in the fall, dial it down and crank it up for a maybe spring. It was a decision I couldn’t control. From a psychological standpoint, they were things we had to battle. We had other schools in our league who had no intention of playing in the fall, so I don’t think it was as hard. It was a constant area we had to address.”
Most, if not all, of the traditional FCS powers lost some sort of firepower to the NFL Draft or NCAA transfer portal. That was life in the spring.
The Bison played 32 freshmen, with 12 starting at some point. Roster adjustment became the norm. NDSU still finished 7-3, a standard most football teams would, in the end, find satisfying.
Take a microscope to the statistics and two factors significantly contributed to a season that ended last Sunday in the quarterfinals at Sam Houston: turnover margin and time of possession.
The Bison lost six fumbles and threw 10 interceptions; they recovered one fumble and picked off five passes. That’s a turnover margin of minus-10. In 2019, that was plus-15, with a big reason Lance having no interceptions. In 2018, it was plus-19.
That’s a lot of possessions that can flip a game.
“When you go into a season and when you’re not as good as what the expectations are or what you traditionally have been at key positions, that number is going to inflate,” Entz said. “One of the things we’ve done a tremendous job at offensively is not turning the ball over. To compare to 2019 is probably unfair; how often does a quarterback not throw an interception? It’s hard to win games when you can’t hang on to the football and can’t extend drives.”
Extending drives also rolls over into time of possession, an element of the game that the Bison have dominated in the last decade, mostly because of its efficient West Coast offense and power running game. Granted, the Bison still led in that category this year, holding the ball for an average of 30 minutes and 19 seconds against the opposition having it for 29:41. Essentially, it was a wash.
The Bison need to be better than average to be national-title effective. Holding the ball in the range of 35 minutes of a 60-minute game has a trickle-down effect to other areas of the game, like the defense being rested.
“It goes back to being able to be really good on third down on both sides of the football,” Entz said. “Creating stops defensively and you can’t give the ball away.”
Much can be made of the lack of passing-game accuracy and that’s true. The Bison completed 51% of their passes in 10 games, well below the targeted 65% range. They also went with a fifth-year senior quarterback Zeb Noland who hadn’t played a full season since high school, eventually deciding on true freshman Cam Miller.
He was the first true freshman to start a game at QB in the Division I era and most likely the first true freshman since Jeff Bentrim in 1983. Miller was 30 of 59 with three interceptions and two touchdowns.
But losing Wilson to a knee injury in February against Youngstown State and Kobe Johnson the last half of the season didn’t help. After a 38-14 loss to Southern Illinois, the Bison retooled their offensive line and that worked for the next three games in wins against Missouri State, Illinois State and North Dakota.
But an injury to Zabel, another true freshman, forced another reshuffle and the Bison offensive line finished the spring season with five different starting combinations. In 2019, the front of Radunz, Nash Jensen, Schoening, Zack Johnson and Cordell Volson started all 16 games. That unit is in the conversation as the greatest offensive line in school history.
Zabel is expected to return this summer for offseason workouts and be at full strength for the fall. Only Wilson isn’t expected to return when practice starts in August because of the second ACL tear of his college career.
Johnson was close to returning this spring. And it appears Sproles is close to full strength right now. Four FBS transfers are expected to compete to be major contributors in quarterback Quincy Patterson (Virginia Tech), running back TaMerik Williams (SMU), tight end Gabe Lloyd (Wisconsin) and offensive guard Luke LaCilento (San Diego).
A word circulated throughout this season outside of the NDSU locker room was the Bison looked “vulnerable” and that certainly was true. In the end, Sam Houston took advantage. South Dakota State took advantage and Southern Illinois had its way.
There was to be no nine of 10 this spring.