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McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-Southern Illinois game

Are the Salukis the dynamic offensive team that riddled NDSU's defense in the spring, controlling the clock and keeping the Bison off the field? Or are the Bison the unstoppable rushing force that physically dominated the SIU defense in the fall playoffs?

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Southern Illinois' quarterback Nic Baker has his helmet knocked off by North Dakota State's Josh Hayes on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Carbondale, Ill.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — The biggest victory of Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill's career came in the COVID-delayed spring season of 2021. The Salukis rolled North Dakota State 38-14 in Carbondale, ending the Bison's FCS record 39-game winning streak.

Make of that game what you will considering the makeshift spring season was an unfortunate joke, but it stands in the record books as a decisive Southern Illinois victory.

Last December, the Salukis got another shot at the Bison. This time it was a second-round contest in the playoffs. There was much talk about the teams being essentially the same, that winning in the spring had told SIU it could compete with NDSU.

Final score: NDSU 38, Southern Illinois 7 in a game that wasn't even that close. Hill was calling timeouts in the final minute in a failed attempt to punch in a touchdown to soften the score.

So the question going into Saturday's important game between the teams is the obvious: Which game in 2021 was representative of these teams?

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Are the Salukis the dynamic offensive team that riddled NDSU's defense in the spring, controlling the clock and keeping the Bison off the field?

Or are the Bison the unstoppable rushing force that physically dominated the SIU defense in the fall playoffs?

Is the truth somewhere in between?

The offshore betting site 5Dimes has the fourth-ranked Bison favored by just seven points, so that tells what the bookies think.

Here are five things to watch in the Bison-Southern Illinois game.

The Big Mo

Southern Illinois' offense — a diverse mix of run, pass, run-pass option, deep shots and quick short throws to give its athletes a chance to make plays — thrives on momentum. If the Salukis get things rolling, a defense can get caught on its heels quickly.

That's what happened in the spring game. NDSU's defense couldn't get off the field and the wave kept building.

It was opposite in the fall. The Bison forced the Salukis into three three-and-outs in the first half and never allowed SIU to gain steam. The Salukis finished with just 14 first downs (most in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided) and were just 2 of 13 on third down.

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NDSU had a 37:45 to 22:15 edge in time of possession. It's hard to build the Big Mo when you're punting.

"Last time we played them up here, we gave them a good run. We had a pretty good game there and that's just what we're trying to emulate, something like that," Bison tackle Cody Mauch said. "Just get on them early. I think they're a big momentum team. Momentum shifts is kind of what they thrive on. If we can keep the momentum our way, keep the big-play, the explosive-play battle in our favor, that's just what we're trying to do this week."

Fabulous Baker boy

I've probably used that description before for SIU quarterback Nic Baker, but the movie title reference is apt. The junior is in his third year as a starter and remains difficult to defend because of his experience, mobility and ability to deliver passes in a variety of ways.

Baker is just 5-foot-9, but head coach Matt Entz pointed out this week that the QB is "unique" and can make throws on the move with a variety of arm angles.

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Southern Illinois Salukis quarterback Nic Baker (8) breaks away from the tackle of Kansas State Wildcats linebacker Ryan Henington (5) during the fourth quarter of a game at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium in 2021.
Scott Sewell/USA TODAY Sports

He has weapons, too. Twin receivers Avante and D'Ante Cox are fast and slippery. Bryce Miller is the same on the outside. Southern Illinois will look for mismatches and leverage on the outside, throw a quick pass to one if its receivers and see if the receiver can make a few defenders miss. It worked two weeks in the Salukis' loss to Northern Iowa when Avante Cox took quick throw from Baker at the line of scrimmage and weaved his way 48 yards for a touchdown.

Javon Williams Jr. is still a load to tackle and Ro Elliott gives the Salukis a breakaway run threat.

Baker can run, too, often finding seams up the middle as the pass rush pushes past him. He likely won't go 60 yard for a touchdown, but is adept at picking up 10 and 15 yards on scrambles.

Containing the quarterback will be a key for NDSU's defensive line and linebackers.

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All the marbles for Salukis

Southern Illinois began the season with two unsightly losses, followed with five victories and now has lost two in a row. Inconsistency is the name of the game. The Salukis looked gross in giving up 64 points in the season opener to Incarnate Word. They looked like a potential deep playoff team when they whipped North Dakota in midseason. They looked meh in a loss at South Dakota and a home defeat to Northern Iowa.

But this game sets up well for the Salukis.

They are coming off a bye week and have likely game-planned for two weeks while getting some time for injuries to heal a bit. Southern Illinois will be fresh, unlike a year ago when they came to Fargo after playing for five straight weeks and traveling to USD in a first-round playoff game the week prior.

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North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox takes on Southern Illinois running back Javon Williams at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Ill. on Saturday. David Samson / Forum News Service

They are at home.

They have everything for which to play. At 5-4, Southern Illinois cannot afford to lose another game. If it does, it will miss the 24-team FCS playoff field. The Bison are every opponent's Super Bowl, so having an amped-up foe is not unusual, but the Salukis are particularly desperate.

The Salukis will come out on fire. If they can get a lead and stay on the field offensively, the momentum we mentioned earlier will build. They will stay engaged.

That's why it's important, as Mauch said, for the Bison to have a fast start and play a clean game. If the Bison weather the early storm and grab a lead, the Salukis will have to respond.

Unstoppable force, immovable object, etc.

It was a different world, we know, but one thing that stood out in the 2021 spring game between the Bison and Salukis was that NDSU couldn't run effectively. The Bison rushed for only 102 yards and had the ball for a remarkably bad 18 minutes of possession in a 60-minute game.

Part of that was NDSU's ineffectual passing game as quarterback Zeb Noland struggled. The Salukis didn't view the Bison as a passing threat and could set their defense accordingly, stacking the box with eight or nine defenders to hyperfocus on the run.

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North Dakota State's TaMerik Williams carries against Southern Illinois during their NCAA FCS second-round football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

In last season's playoff game, the Bison offensive line simply overpowered the Salukis. NDSU quarterback Cam Miller had to throw only 14 passes as the Bison rushed for 389 yards on 62 runs.

This year's Bison are again one of the best running teams in FCS, averaging 263 yards per game. The Salukis, though, own one of the best run defenses in the country, ranking ninth by allowing just 100 yards a game.

So what's going to give? Can SIU's defensive line hold up against NDSU's offensive line, which is the best in FCS? Or will the Bison be able to run for 200 yards or more to control the line of scrimmage, while mixing in Miller's accurate throwing?

We'll say this: TaMerik Williams, Hunter Luepke and Kobe Johnson are a potent threesome running behind the Bison offensive line. Everybody knows what Luepke can do, but Williams and Johnson are both healthy at the same time (finally) and both looked strong against Western Illinois.

Yes, we know. It was Western Illinois, the worst team in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. But Williams looked like his last-year self, hitting holes are and shedding tacklers. Johnson is running as hard as he's ever run at NDSU.

If Southern Illinois can limit NDSU's running game, the Salukis have a good chance to win. If not, you have to like the Bison's chances.

Are Bison trending up?

It seems like it's a weekly discussion this season: Which Bison team are we going to see?

Will it be the Bison we saw through the first seven games — the one that took silly penalties, had trouble stopping the run, had too many turnovers and generally didn't look like the NDSU teams of the last dozen years?

Or will it be the "old" Bison — a team that plays tight, clean football and puts away inferior opponents with ease while leaning on better teams until they break?

There's been hope the last two weeks that NDSU is trending in the right direction. The Bison played their most complete game of the year in a home victory over a decent Illinois State team and followed it with a complete domination on the road of a bad Western Illinois squad.

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North Dakota State's Anthony Coleman intercepts a pass intended for Western Illinois' Jake McClure during their football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Macomb, Illinois.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Communications Co.

We learned something about NDSU after it played well following a loss to South Dakota State and a bye. We will learn more about them against Southern Illinois.

If the Bison go on the road against a desperate, talented team and play well to earn a victory — particularly if it's a comfortable one — there is hope this could be a possible national championship unit. If NDSU plays so-so or worse and loses to the Salukis, it's likely we'll have to accept this Bison team is missing something.

With a good North Dakota team on tap to finish the regular season, the Bison best be trending upward prior to the playoffs. Solid victories over the Salukis and Fighting Hawks could make for an interesting December.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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