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McFeely: How many key injuries can Bison survive?

Cheney, Wash.And now, it's Nick DeLuca. Is anybody questioning now whether the football gods are leveling the odds for all those wins and all that good fortune North Dakota State has had since 2011?The Bison's star linebacker makes it an even fiv...

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CHENEY, Wash.-And now, it's Nick DeLuca. Is anybody questioning now whether the football gods are leveling the odds for all those wins and all that good fortune North Dakota State has had since 2011?

The Bison's star linebacker makes it an even five-an entire basketball team, if this was a joking matter-who have suffered knee injuries this season. The school announced Friday, Sept. 8, that DeLuca injured his knee in practice this week and his status for Saturday's game against Eastern Washington is questionable.

Athletic department spokesman Ryan Perrault said DeLuca's injury did not involve the anterior cruciate ligament and that "his status is still being evaluated." That would indicate the injury might be a meniscus tear, which would be less devastating than an ACL. If there is good news in this situation, that would be it. If DeLuca is lost for the season, it would be a crushing blow to a team trying to keep its Football Championship Subdivision dynasty going.

Still, this is not good for NDSU. If DeLuca is not gone for the year, he still might miss four weeks. Or five. Or six. And it continues a disturbing trend that appears to be accelerating.

During this record-setting run that began with a national championship in 2011, NDSU would lose a key player here and there to an injury. Fans and the media would freak out, but the Bison would overcome it and continue to win games and championships.

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NDSU lost quarterback Carson Wentz for a long stretch of the 2015 season, for goodness sake, and didn't miss a beat. With the eventual No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft sidelined, Easton Stick stepped in and led the Bison to the national title game in Frisco, Texas. Only then did Wentz return, leading the Bison to a rout of Jacksonville State.

There were others. Star players Grant Olson, Travis Beck, Leevon Perry. All defensive players lost to injuries, yet the Bison kept steamrolling en route to five straight championships.

Last season was different. The injuries were huge and, you could argue, they mattered in the end. DeLuca, poised for a huge senior season and the possibility of being drafted by the NFL, hurt his shoulder and missed eight games. Late in the year, nose tackle Nate Tanguay blew out his knee and was gone. NDSU lost in the playoff semifinals to James Madison at the Fargodome in a game that that saw the Bison fall behind 17-0 before clawing back to tie it in the third quarter. You could make the case that with DeLuca and Tanguay on the field, the outcome of that game could have been different.

This season has started exactly on the wrong foot-or knee, as it were. Excellent defensive end Greg Menard injured his knee in fall camp. NDSU lost three more players with injured knees-future star offensive lineman Dillon Radunz, safety Jaxon Brown and running back Demaris Purifoy-in the first game against Mississippi Valley State.

No injury is good, but Menard, Radunz and now DeLuca are particularly big blows. Former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly used to refer to his most important players, the clutch performers, as his Big Knockers. Menard, Radunz and DeLuca are all Big Knockers for NDSU.

Injuries are a big part of football. Every team has them. There is not one ounce of sympathy for NDSU on the FCS landscape. But it's fair to say this season feels different with all the injuries happening to important players so early in the season. It feels like the odds are finally catching up to the Bison. It's impossible to measure, of course.

NDSU is still a very strong team. If the Bison beat Eastern Washington, they'll be set to make another run at a high playoff seed. But it's also true defending champ James Madison is loaded, as is MVFC rival South Dakota State. Another conference colleague and last year's national runner-up, Youngstown State, looks stronger than expected.

The climb back to the national title game was already steep for the Bison. It's steeper with all the injuries.

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And there are 10 games remaining. What is yet to come?

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