NORMAL, Ill. — North Dakota State is 6-0, barreling toward a high seed in the playoffs and its defense is barely allowing other teams within sight of the end zone, much less into it. So all is good in Bisonville, right?

Right?

Folks, one thing we do with this program is nitpick. We've done it for a decade as the Bison have rolled to eight Football Championship Subdivision national titles. The standard is higher, the scrutiny closer.

So here we go.

The Bison offense. What's up with that?

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More from North Dakota State's victory over Illinois State:

NDSU beat Illinois State 20-0 in a Missouri Valley Football Conference meat-grinder Saturday in front of a large hostile crowd against a foe that knows how to play defense. Redbirds head coach Brock Spack needs a quarterback worse than Kyrie Irving needs a needle in his arm, but he knows how to lead a defense.

So a shutout win should be good stuff and nothing but good stuff.

Mmmm ... maybe. At the end of the day it feels like something was missing. Again. It feels like the Bison couldn't deliver the roundhouse punch until late in the fourth quarter, like they couldn't get any consistency on offense. Again. Just like it did against North Dakota a couple of weeks ago.

It felt like NDSU turned a 40-0 game into a 20-0 game.

Again, the standards are a little different in Fargo. Fair or not.

"That kind of comes with what people expect out of us," Bison quarterback Quincy Patterson said. "It's kind of hard to complete post balls every single game. Granted, we did have a bunch of big plays that were missed and we should've made. We're not always going to have an 85-yard touchdown. I don't think people realize that. I'll take the win."

The big man gets it. Bison fans, and those who cover the team in the media, are so spoiled from years of blowouts and big plays that any game in which NDSU struggles to run the ball and can't hit an explosive pass play feels like a dud. They want an 85-yard electric bolt for a TD like the one Patterson and Christian Watson provided last week against Northern Iowa.

In two of the last three weeks, at UND and now in Normal, Ill., the Bison offense couldn't get its running backs loose and couldn't complete a deep ball. Patterson himself had two interceptions, including a bad one in the first half that killed a promising drive.

The Bison finished with 201 rushing yards and 325 total yards. Just fine for most teams in a shutout victory. For this team, it felt like a slog.

And like against UND, the Bison's best offense was Patterson's legs. He finished with 100 rushing yards.

"Of course, the obvious," NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. "We have to do better in the red zone."

North Dakota State's Phoenix Sproles is spun in mid-air by Southern Illinois' Zeke Vandenburgh and Jarrell Jackson after a 37-yard reception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Phoenix Sproles is spun in mid-air by Southern Illinois' Zeke Vandenburgh and Jarrell Jackson after a 37-yard reception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

Indeed, the Bison left points on the board. But there was more to it than that. There was a predictability that when NDSU faced a third-and-5 in the second half, it was going to call on Patterson to run. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

Illinois State, like UND, brought loads of pressure. Like against UND, the Bison didn't adjust. Often, NDSU's running backs ran into the blitzing Redbirds.

"They were bringing three off every edge. They were bringing smoke from the boundary and the field. And that's what they hang their hat on," Entz said. "What I wish, and what we need to continue to work on, is we have to break some tackles at some point and get people out of that mode. If you can get some explosives on them, then they are going to back off."

Entz swore he and his offensive coaches don't purposely go into a shell when it's obvious an opponent is going to have a tough time scoring. It would seem logical the Bison would play it close to the vest, not make a silly turnover, be happy to play the field position game.

It apparently just seems that way to the rest of us.

"We're trying to score all the time. We're not trying to be conservative, if that's what you're asking. Not at all," Entz said.

North Dakota State's RaJa Nelson is taken down by Southern Illinois' Clayton Isbell after a 17-yard pass reception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's RaJa Nelson is taken down by Southern Illinois' Clayton Isbell after a 17-yard pass reception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

What the Bison needed, and what their fans and critics are asking for, is a little more explosion. Not on every play. Just on a couple of plays. More Watson down the middle of the field running free, less Dom Gonnella off left tackle for two yards.

"I want 85-yard touchdowns, but it's not always that easy. People play it now. They know who Christian is and the type of player he is. That's not going to be allowed all the time," Patterson said.

The Bison are unbeaten heading into the second half of the season. They have Missouri State and Indiana State at the Fargodome in the next two weeks. Everything is setting up for NDSU to make a run toward Frisco, Texas.

It just feels like they need more offense to go with that remarkable defense.

Are we nitpicking? Darn right. It's what we do with the mighty Bison.

Patterson says to be patient.

"We're not even close to where we should be or where we will be," he said. "I feel like that's a scary thing for opposing teams and a good thing for us. When we start clicking and our defense keeps doing what they're doing, it'll be 70-0 games. It'll be scary. Period."

North Dakota State's Christian Watson trots to the goal line to score past Southern Illinois' Iverson Brown in the first quarter at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Christian Watson trots to the goal line to score past Southern Illinois' Iverson Brown in the first quarter at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum