FARGO – There have been plenty of questions looming about North Dakota State's football team these last two weeks. One of the biggest seemed to be: "Can NDSU-the four-time defending national champions-possibly lose to rival North Dakota?"
After the Bison lost their season opener at Montana two weeks ago and UND pulled off its biggest Division I upset at Wyoming last week, it certainly put a different spin on next Saturday's NDSU-UND game-marking the first time the two schools will play since 2003.
Well, Bison fans who are worried about the much-anticipated showdown with UND can rest a bit easier after their team answered a lot of early-season questions Saturday with a convincing 41-14 home-opening win over Weber State. And they can perhaps rest even easier knowing that UND's big win at Wyoming lost a little luster Saturday when Eastern Michigan-for years a lower-level FBS team-manhandled Wyoming 48-29.
“We will enjoy this win for 24 hours and then we have to go to work because we’ve got the next opponent,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman.
And what about that next opponent – which, by the way, struggled to post a 21-18 win Saturday over Drake – hardly known for its football?
“I’m going to enjoy this and we’ll talk about it on Monday,” Klieman quickly answered.
What Klieman can enjoy is that a lot of questions were answered.
Was quarterback Carson Wentz ready to go after suffering a high ankle sprain against Montana? Yes. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 45 yards and another touchdown.
“He was ready to go,” Klieman said. “I thought he played a great, great football game.”
Was NDSU’s young defense ready to bounce back from giving up 544 total yards in the 38-35 loss at Montana? Yes. With senior C.J. Smith back at cornerback, the Bison defense limited Weber State to 206 yards.
It was looking like a repeat of Montana when Weber tied the game 7-7 with a 68-yard touchdown pass – exploiting NDSU’s secondary that includes two sophomore safeties and one true freshman safety. It’s not easy replacing the likes of Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik.
“Take that one big play out and I thought they played really sound, good football,” Klieman said. “You know, they’ve heard a lot of things for two weeks. Not only from outside but from inside our facility too that we’ve got to show up and play better. They were a pretty focused group.”
Could NDSU have possibly opened up the season with an 0-2 record for only the third time since 1976?
The last time that occurred was in 2009 when Craig Bohl’s Bison stumbled to a 3-8 season. Bohl may be facing a worse record than that this year after his Wyoming team fell to 0-2.
The other two times NDSU started 0-2 came in 1981 and 1976. The Bison bounced back from those slow starts to advance to the Division II championship games.
About the only worry that this year’s Bison could start 0-2 is when they gave up that 68-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter. The Bison quickly eliminated any of those worries building a 28-7 halftime lead.
“The momentum had really shifted and our guys did a great job in that second quarter and taking the momentum back,” Klieman said.
By answering a few questions, the Bison seem to have some momentum back for next week’s game against UND. They will take any momentum they can get for a UND team that appears to be on the right track of turning its program around.
When the state of North Dakota had this rivalry to talk about, it was UND that won 10 of 13 games over NDSU from 1993 to 2003. NDSU’s last win over UND was a 16-13 home win in 2000. It could be more of the same if NDSU doesn’t continue to improve on defense.
But, if NDSU continues to improve enough to make a legitimate claim for a fifth straight national title, then we just may see a result reminiscent of the 12 straight wins the Bison posted over UND from 1981 to 1992. That was a stretch when NDSU won five Division II national titles.
Weber State head coach Jay Hill said the Bison looked like a national championship team on Saturday.
“Bottom line … you are playing the best team in FCS football,” Hill said. “And until someone knocks them off in the playoffs, they are still the team to beat.”