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Bison Media Blog: 5 things to watch in the Bison-Youngstown game

NDSU is facing a team that plays a similar style of football in Youngstown State.

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North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller takes a snap against Youngstown State during their football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Youngstown, Ohio. The Bison and the Penguins are set to play at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — It’s homecoming at North Dakota State and the school is putting on its usual format of festivities like the parade, Hall of Fame induction ceremony and open houses throughout campus.

At Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, the Bison wouldn’t mind welcoming back its shutdown rushing defense in the 1 p.m. kickoff against Youngstown State.

The Penguins bring record-setting running back Jaleel McLaughlin to Fargo. Counting his first two years at Division II Notre Dame College (Ohio), McLaughlin is ninth all-time on the NCAA career rushing list with 6,946 yards.

The Bison, meanwhile, are 49th in the FCS in rushing defense, down from their customary position of being a top 10 team in that category. NDSU was sixth last year, giving up 87.6 yards per game in 15 games.

The Bison are surrendering 138.2 through four games this season.

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NCAA Football: Youngstown State at Kentucky
Youngstown State Penguins running back Jaleel McLaughlin (8) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats earlier this season at Kroger Field.
Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports

On the positive front, NDSU was much better against the run last week in the 34-17 win at the University of South Dakota. The Bison outscored the Coyotes 24-0 in the second half and that included holding USD’s top back, Travis Theis, to 63 yards for the game.

Youngstown and McLaughlin could bring a bigger challenge.

Here are the five things to watch in the Bison-Penguins matchup:

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Throw all preseason predictions aside, forget about for a few moments the past decade of each program and get down to the numbers and competition this season. Both have a similar look to them, starting with the schedules.

NDSU didn’t have much trouble with non-scholarship Drake University and a North Carolina A&T program that has seen better days. The Bison had their chances to beat FBS Arizona on the road.

For Youngstown, the Penguins didn’t have much trouble with non-scholarship Dayton and a Duquesne FCS program that is a ways away from being a top 25 team. The Penguins defense had four quarterback sacks and forced three turnovers on FBS seventh-ranked Kentucky before falling 31-0.

Both teams like to run the ball. NDSU is averaging 265.5 yards rushing a game that ranks it fifth in the FCS. Youngstown is averaging 187.3 yards and is ranked 22nd in rushing offense. Both are in the top 10 in turnover margin: the Bison ninth gaining nine turnovers while committing four, and the Penguins eighth gaining eight turnovers and also committing four.

Tackling, tackling, tackling

NDSU head coach Matt Entz made mention at his media availability earlier this week that tackling has been a concern through four games.

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"It's an issue right now though, not one that we're ignoring," Entz said. "We're not running our feet on contact. It feels like we have too many guys trying to saw people in half (versus) tackling high and running their feet and accelerating. If we can just slow people up, we'll get someone else there."

Youngstown State has an elusive runner in McLaughlin, who has a penchant for making defenders miss. The Penguins also have a mobile quarterback in sophomore Demeatric Crenshaw.

"In my opinion, tackling is a fundamental and those are things that we have to continue to work on," Entz said.

Bison mistakes been costly

NDSU’s four turnovers are not a major league problem by any means, but the Bison have been guilty of other untimely issues that have stalled drives or, on defense, kept drives alive.

NDSU has been whistled for 22 infractions for 244 yards in four games. A lost fumble inside of Arizona’s 10-yard line was costly. False-start penalties have negated promising drives in two games.

“There are still way too many penalties that are of the intolerable type,” Entz said.

Perhaps they’re magnified in the fact NDSU’s last two opponents, Arizona and USD, were whistled for just one penalty each.

The first half last week was uncharacteristic of championship-level NDSU football over the last decade with an interception and two lost fumbles, the latter with under a minute to play that led to a quick South Dakota touchdown and a 17-10 Coyote halftime lead.

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“The last 2 1/2 minutes of the first half, probably something I’ve never experienced before and probably a lot of people have never experienced before,” Entz said. “But like I tell our team, nobody went into that game with anticipation of fumbling the football. Those things happen, although I’ve never seen them happen that quickly.”

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North Dakota State's Zach Mathis starts a run against South Dakota during their football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Looking for the home-run threat

Look for Youngstown to stack the line of scrimmage to try and hold down the Bison rushing attack. Not only that, two of NDSU’s receiving leaders that were tabbed before the season as being the top two guys may be out.

Tight end Noah Gindorff won’t be available this weekend while treating an ongoing injury suffered in the FCS playoffs last year. Senior wide receiver Phoenix Sproles missed the USD game with a hamstring issue and his status is unknown.

Junior Joe Stoffel is getting the start for Gindorff. He responded with two key receptions last week. At some point, the Bison will need to stretch the field more often than they have in the first three games.

The long ball wasn’t needed against Drake and North Carolina A&T. NDSU went to a power game against Arizona. The Bison had one shot at a home run last week when Braylon Henderson got behind the Coyote secondary, but quarterback Cam Miller overthrew him.

Last year at Youngstown, Christian Watson scored on a 71-yard pass from Miller. In the 2019 Penguins game, Watson caught a 69-yard scoring toss from Trey Lance.

Watson is with the Green Bay Packers.

Is it Henderson’s time to shine? DJ Hart? Zach Mathis? The Bison would like to find that threat.

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'Ram' tough on the offensive line

NDSU’s offensive line came into the season with a reputation of being experienced and good. It has delivered on its word.

Running back Hunter Luepke and his powerful style has been the perfect complement to the group, which starts four seniors and a junior across the front. Senior left tackle Cody Mauch has twice been the Missouri Valley Offensive Lineman of the Week this year.

The Bison are fifth in the FCS in rushing offense with their 265.5 average. That includes 356 yards at USD.

“I thought we ran the ball extremely hard,” Entz said. “I thought we had a lot of yards after contact.”

Senior left guard Nash Jensen didn’t finish the game because of a lower-leg injury, but appears ready to play this week. Even if he doesn’t, the Bison don’t lose much with junior guard Grey Zabel, or the combination of inserting junior Brandon Westberg at center or guard or moving center Jalen Sundell to guard.

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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