McFeely: Bison are not perfect, yet they still are
NDSU, Lance show youth in victory over UC Davis but Bison end nonconference schedule 4-0
When your football program has won 116 games and lost only eight in the past eight seasons and change, you need to find slights where you can. So North Dakota State has taken to referencing people who may or may not exist, thinking things they may or may not have thought.
"I don't know how many people out there thought we'd be 4-0 after the nonconference," Bison head coach Matt Entz said after his team dispatched UC Davis 27-16 on Saturday, Sept. 21, in a matchup of Division I Football Championship Subdivision powers at the Fargodome.
Well, actually, many people believed the No. 1-ranked Bison would be 4-0. Many, many people. Most, in fact. Like 99.8 percent. Maybe more. I mean, this is a program that's won seven of the last eight national championships. Who is betting against them?
Perhaps the first-year coach felt the need to play some defense in his postgame remarks, since the standard set in Fargo has led to tremendous scrutiny and an unprecedented level of nitpicking.
Guilty as charged.
It didn't take long for postgame questions, for example, to lurch toward the 422 total yards allowed by the Bison defense, some poor throws made by redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance and a handful of drops by NDSU receivers.
Fair questions all, but coming after a hard-fought, 11-point victory over the fourth-ranked team in the country that possesses perhaps the best quarterback the Bison will see all year ... maybe that had Entz going to the mat for his team.
"Last time I checked, nobody gets bonus points for yards gained," Entz said. "It's all about the 16 points."
What transpired on the dome carpet was two really good FCS teams playing a closely contested and highly entertaining game that some home fans, inexplicably, chose to leave early. Do y'all prefer 40-point blowouts?
The Bison showed their youth for the first time this young season, a development not unexpected for a team that lost 24 seniors off last year's 15-0 squad. That NDSU rolled so easily and made so few mistakes against competent, well-coached North Dakota and Delaware was perhaps the story through the first three games.
Remember when I said in this space that Lance looked like Superman so far? Yeah, well, maybe I need to slow my roll. The youngster is a tremendous player — UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins, admittedly known for a bit of hyperbole, said he might be better than predecessors Carson Wentz and Easton Stick — but he showed against the Aggies he's prone to make some bad throws and bad reads.
Lance missed Christian Watson badly on a sideline throw on a key third down in the third quarter and nearly threw a pick-six on another sideline pass in the fourth quarter. He was behind several receivers, including tight end Noah Gindorff on a pass down the left hashmarks in the second quarter.
Gindorff still got both hands on the ball and probably should've made the catch, but he wasn't alone in dropping the ball to the turf. Receiver Phoenix Sproles dropped a key third-down throw in the fourth quarter, tight end Josh Babicz muffed a pass that could've been caught and receiver Christian Watson lost a fumble after a third-quarter catch.
"We didn't have a great game offensively," running back Ty Brooks said. "The defense bailed us out again and again."
It was uncharacteristically loose game, at least offensively, from a program that rarely has them. NDSU never seemed to get in its usual rhythm, particularly on the ground. It was, probably, more what regular observers of the Bison expected early in the season from a young team.
When the machine gets a wrench in the gears, it stands out.
"I couldn't tell if it was anything to do with a young team as much as it was we were playing a really good team," Entz said.
The key, as Hawkins pointed out, is that the Bison managed to win. As they almost always do. The Aggies, by contrast, lost a quarterfinal playoff game at Eastern Washington last year with a final-minute meltdown and had a chance to beat NDSU. They continue to get close, but can't finish the big ones.
It's what the Bison have built a brand on — taking everybody's best shot every week and finding a way to win. NDSU now has a 25-game winning streak, which sometimes is easy to take for granted. It is the third-longest winning streak in FCS history behind the Bison's own 33-game streak and a 26-game put together by James Madison a couple of years ago.
"There's a lot of people out there who didn't think we would be 4-0," Lance said. "But this was huge."
I challenge Entz and his team to find four people who didn't think the Bison would be 4-0 at this point.
Finding people who don't think they'll go 12-0 in the regular season would be much easier. Up next is the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference, where coaches are intimately familiar with the Bison. Illinois State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Youngstown State always play the Bison tough and are potential defeats.
And if the Bison make some of the same mistakes they made against UC Davis, that potential will turn to reality.