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Analysis: A few deficiencies contributed to Bison football falling short in Frisco

A 12-3 season is outstanding by college football standards, but the Bison in the last decade are measured by their FCS title game successes.

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North Dakota State's Michael Tutsie celebrates the win over Incarnate Word during the NCAA FCS semifinals at the Fargodome on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

FARGO — A reporter who covers Northwestern University football in the Chicago area asked about North Dakota State defensive coordinator David Braun and his impending move to the same position with the Wildcats. He inquired about the 12-3 Bison season.

And then he asked a question that, at face value, would seem odd to most of America. Is that considered a “down” season?

Taking into account nine Division I FCS national championships since 2011, that assumption could be made. The reality, however, is NDSU finished its season in Frisco, Texas, and for the first time in 10 tries came up on the other end of the scoreboard.

South Dakota State thumped the Bison 45-21.

Still, 12-3 by normal college football standards is outstanding.

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The positives were many, like the Bison finishing third in the FCS in rushing yards per game behind a very good offensive line that overcame the loss of two starters.

The negatives were also noticeable. For that, we point to three key elements in the 2022 season: 1. The defensive backfield was as good as ever; 2. Key injuries hampered their potential; 3. Rushing defense was at its lowest level in NDSU’s championship run.

Bison secondary was primary

The Bison finished seventh in the FCS in passing yards allowed at 172.4 per game, although part of that high ranking could be attributed to opponents having more success running the ball. But trying to move the ball downfield on the Bison through the air was not easy this season.

NDSU picked off 16 passes, which tied it for fifth in the FCS — granted NDSU played more games because of the playoffs. Still, until the title game vs. SDSU, rare was a receiver who got behind the Bison secondary.

The longest pass against NDSU this season was 63 yards by the University of North Dakota, and that was a wide receiver screen where UND's Bo Belquist took a short pass, found a seam and outsprinted defensive players to the 2-yard line. After that, it was a 58-yard pass by Western Illinois in the fourth quarter in a game that was long already decided.

The other 13 games had long passes in the 30- to 40-yard range and if they are isolated, which they mostly were, defenses can live with that.

Experience in the secondary was a strength. Senior safeties Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber were in their sixth year of school and fifth year of eligibility thanks to the COVID-19 non-counting season. Junior backup safety Dom Jones played a lot. Senior cornerback Destin Talbert was in his fifth season of eligibility and finished his career playing in 65 career games.

Junior cornerback Courtney Eubanks was in his second year as a starter and has played in 36 career games. Senior Jayden Price was in his fifth year in the program.

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The unit took a dent when key backup Marques Sigle entered the transfer portal immediately after the regular season. Yet, the defensive backfield was deep enough to absorb the loss.

Weber led the team with five interceptions in his best career year. Sigle and linebacker Logan Kopp had two each with Sigle taking one the other way for a pick-six.

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North Dakota State's Dawson Weber intercepts an Incarnate Word pass in the final moments of their FCS semifinal championship football game Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in the Fargodome.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Communications Co.

Tough year for injuries

Division I FCS has a maximum of 63 scholarships and for teams to make deep playoff runs, one of the best formulas is to keep your money players on the field. The Bison struggled with that.

The first sign of issues started early in the second game of the season when All-American candidate and defensive tackle Eli Mostaert was lost until the title game with a broken leg against North Carolina A&T.

The following week, after a 31-28 loss at the University of Arizona, tight end Noah Gindorff went absent for an undisclosed reason. It was later revealed the sixth-year tight end and NFL prospect had a second surgery on a broken ankle that never fully healed from an injury suffered in December 2021.

That took a major weapon out of the Bison lineup. Two games later, defensive end Jake Kava was lost for the season with a torn pectoral tendon against Youngstown State. Starting center Jalen Sundell vacated the lineup in early October after a “reaction fracture” in his foot that required surgery.

The biggest blow was the injury to standout fullback and NFL prospect Hunter Luepke late in the first half at Southern Illinois. That ended the career and senior season of Luepke after 10 games. Starting right tackle Mason Miller saw his season end in the same game with a broken leg.

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Meanwhile, linebacker Cole Wisniewski did not return to the lineup until midway through the season and he was limited for the first couple of games. Running back TaMerik Williams was limited for the first month of the season with both Wisniewski and Williams recovering from off-season rehabilitation.

Counting the injuries and four contributing players who left via the transfer portal during the season, including starting receivers Phoenix Sproles and DJ Hart, that was nine players who NDSU could have used in Frisco.

The Bison also lost returning linebacker Jasir Cox and backup quarterback Quincy Patterson to the portal in the offseason.

The argument can be made it was the most key players the Bison lost via injury in their Division I era, with perhaps the last problematic year being the Division II 2002 season when 15 players didn’t suit up for the final game, a 31-7 loss to St. Cloud State. And two more players went down in that game with significant injuries.

Of 10 senior starters, only two made it through the season. That team finished 2-8.

The fact NDSU made it to 12-3 and was playing in early January with so many key players missing was a testament to the depth of the program.

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North Dakota State's Hunter Luepke injured his shoulder against Southern Illinois during their football game Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Carbondale, Illinois.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Run defense stat doesn’t lie

NDSU in its title run has produced three NFL quarterbacks and a couple NFL wide receivers, which makes five guys at next-level splash positions. The offense since 2011 has been explosive.

But every year since that first championship against Sam Houston State, the powerful statistic of note has been NDSU’s defense against the run. Between 2011 and 2021, that figure has ranged from giving up 87.6 yards per game in 2021 to 136.1 in 2019. Other years of note include 2012 (93.9 ypg), 2013 (91.3 ypg), 2016 (89.2 ypg) and 2017 (89.5 ypg).

This year: NDSU gave up 156.9 yards a game.

If the Bison want to get back to a championship level, that will most likely have to improve in 2023.

It wasn’t easy replacing key losses in the interior of the defensive line from the 2021 title team, which had departing seniors Costner Ching, Lane Tucker and Michael Buetow. With Eli Mostaert out, they were replaced by a junior, two redshirt freshmen and converted defensive end Will Mostaert.

Only James Kaczor returned as a starting linebacker, although Wisniewski played a lot. As previously stated, he missed half the season.

SDSU led the FCS in rushing defense this season and it showed. NDSU was 60th out of 123 teams. In 2021 the Bison were third in the FCS. It’s hard to be average at such an important statistic and win in Frisco.

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South Dakota State's Amar Johnson breaks free for a touchdown against North Dakota State during the NCAA FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum
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Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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