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Bison look to cure the third-down blues with the season opener around the corner

NDSU offense sputtered to stay on the field in the interrupted spring season.

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North Dakota State quarterbacks Cam Miller, Quincy Patterson, Cole Payton, JJ Woodin and Peter Anderson run drills during Bison football practice on Friday, August 6, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — The record in 2019 was 16-0. The record in the 2020-21 spring season was 7-3. Comparing the two is not only apples to oranges, but a tree farm to a flower garden. Not even in the same conversation.

The pandemic, of course, interrupted operations off the field to the point of calamity at several points along the way. On the field, however, if there is a point of improvement and emphasis on the North Dakota State offense this fall, look no further than third down.

It was not good.

The Bison were successful 42% of the time. And it was really not good when NDSU faced between third-and-5 and third-and-10. They were successful just 19 times in 60 tries (32%).

“What that tells me is we need to be better on first and second down,” said head coach Matt Entz. “We can’t get stuck into those third and longs.”

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Still, third-and-5ish in the championship years seemed more attainable than last spring, obviously due to the quarterback and offense in general. Former Bison quarterback Brock Jensen was average on third down in his first two years and was masterful in his final two that led to national title rings from 2011-13.

There wasn’t much of a dropoff with Carson Wentz, Easton Stick and Trey Lantz. Third down? No problem.

The Bison converted on third down 51% of the time in 2019. They were 52% in 2018, 47% in 2017, 48% in 2016 and 47% in 2015.

“Consistency and efficiency are words our kids have heard over the course of the last three weeks,” Entz said.

To address the inconsistency and inefficiency of last spring, Entz said he emphasized a “Football 101” class on occasions this month. Presumably, it was to address the situational aspect of football and what’s needed to overcome them. Or perhaps prevent them.

One topic was third down and the success rate needed for a team to be successful. In simple terms, the defense needs to get off the field as quickly as it can and the offense needs to stay on the field as long as it can.

It helps the offense to have a passing game capable of being confident enough to convert on third-and-5 to third-and-10.

That will be one of the tasks handed to Quincy Patterson II, who was named the starting quarterback on Friday.

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“I think we can get the ball out of his hands quickly,” Entz said. “I think we have some playmakers who can break some tackles. I don’t think it all has to be on Quincy. I think we have to see Quincy deliver the football and need guys like Phoenix (Sproles), guys like Christian (Watson), guys like Jake Lippe and Braylon Henderson make the catch and break a tackle and make plays.”

Those are four receivers who will play a lot in the season opener next Saturday against the University of Albany (N.Y.) at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. They’ll need to help the Bison offense when, on third-and-5 to third-and-10, it was 0 of 5 against Youngstown State at that distance, 2 of 10 against Missouri State, 2 of 7 against North Dakota and 3 of 7 against Northern Iowa.

The Bison won those games.

They were 3 of 9 against Southern Illinois, 3 of 6 against South Dakota State and 1 of 7 against Sam Houston State; all losses. The one potent offensive attack at that distance was 4 of 5 against Eastern Washington when the Bison blew out the Eagles 42-20 in the FCS first round playoff game.

And in the defense of the Bison quarterbacks last spring, they didn’t have injured receivers Sproles and Zach Mathis. The offensive line had different combinations.

“Making sure we feel like we’re good in protection up front and having all of our players available,” Entz said. “We need to make sure we’re making each other better.”

Both Entz and quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said this week that Patterson’s passing game has been good in fall camp. No throw in practice goes uncharted and includes categories like competition under pressure, competition in the ‘big zone’ and competition in 7 on 7.

“I think we have the numbers to prove it,” Entz said. “We keep track of everything. We have our own method of analytics within our own program. We’ve kept track of everything throughout fall camp.”

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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