Game Day notebook: Bison offensive line went back to the basics late in season
Offense 'chiseled down' playbook in attempt to eliminate some of the elaborate schemes of an offense.
FARGO — It probably started on the first play of the game three weeks ago at Youngstown State. Junior running back TaMerik Williams, in his first start, ran for 18 yards. It really started a few plays later when fullback Hunter Luepke went up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown run.
The Bison offensive line was back.
The consistent push was back. The physical look of the West Coast offense had returned.
“I just think we found more of a purpose to play for,” said senior left guard Nash Jensen. “We knew as an entire offense we needed to get better and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We just go out there and compete and prove it with urgency.”
NDSU ran for 463 yards against Youngstown. A week later, it amassed 334 against South Dakota. That didn’t come by accident. Bison head coach Matt Entz said the offense “chiseled down” the playbook, perhaps a key heading into Saturday’s second round FCS playoff matchup against Southern Illinois at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
“I think it takes a lot off of everybody’s plate,” Jensen said. “We don’t have to think about anything fancy, just stick to what we know and get better at that.”
That’s not to mean NDSU won’t do all of its pre-snap movements and motions. But at its base, the offensive line’s job is to move defenders off the ball. That hasn’t always been the case this season in a position group that can get complicated with schemes and movements.
“We know we have to go out, run off the ball and get people moved,” Jensen said.
Jensen, by the way, a fifth-year senior, will return next fall and use his free pandemic season of eligibility. He redshirted in 2017.
“I don’t think I could leave this place without a stone unturned,” he said. “I still have goals for myself that I want to achieve and I think staying an extra year will help me achieve those goals. I just want to leave this program better than I found it.”
Bison balancing game, recruiting this month
It’s playoff time, but that doesn’t mean the Bison coaching staff is 100% focused on Southern Illinois. National signing day is only a week and a half away. The Bison have known commitments from 32 players to date.
That’s a larger than normal class. And while NDSU has Southern Illinois to try and figure out, other teams whose season is done have all of their attention on recruiting, the possibility of convincing a Bison commit to flip.
Entz said it’s on NDSU’s staff to keep plugging away. The Bison are still trying to schedule official recruiting visits.
“We have to do a great job staying in touch,” he said. “There are a lot of irons in the fire but it’s a good situation to have. Preparing for a game is better than being out on the road right now. All of our recruits know that we’re still preparing and I think they understand.”
Salukis hoping to ground 'gritty' Bison
NDSU is averaging 35.3 points and 271.8 rushing yards per game entering its second-round game, while the Salukis are allowing 161.9 yards per game to opponents. The Bison rushed for a combined 757 yards in their final two games of the regular season.
“You physically have to match them,” said SIU head coach Nick Hill. “You’re not going to trick them. There won’t be any, 'Let’s run a bunch of trick plays and try to win this game,' that doesn’t work. You have to line up, and you have to physically take on the challenge and be more physical than them and then have the belief to beat them.”
The Salukis earned a 38-14 home victory against the Bison last spring, limiting NDSU to 109 rushing yards on 21 attempts in that game. SIU snapped a Bison 39-game winning streak with that victory in Carbondale.
“This team will take the field with the belief that they know they can beat them, not that they think they can,” Hill said. “They’ve done it before. … This team has proven it can beat anybody and also we can get beat by anybody.”
Hill said he has a "ton of respect" for the NDSU program, which has a 37-3 record in the FCS playoffs that includes a 28-1 record in the Fargodome.
“When you put on the film, they play hard, they’re gritty,” Hill said. “This is a pretty typical North Dakota State team as far as getting back to really physically getting after you in the run game.”
Baker brings 'tenacity' to SIU offense
SIU sophomore quarterback Nic Baker has had a strong season, completing 242 of 388 passes (62%) for 3,026 yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. The 5-foot-9, 194-pound Baker has also rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown on 87 attempts.
"He’s a competitor," Hill said. "He’s 5-8 1/2, 5-9, so there’s got to be some reason why we recruited a 5-9 quarterback. He has a toughness and a tenacity and a will to win. He continues to get better. He makes plays with his feet. He can push the ball down the field."
The Salukis are averaging 32.9 points and 427.8 yards per game. Hill said his team is at his best when Baker is playing efficient football. Baker completed 17 of 23 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in SIU's victory against the Bison last February.
"Whenever he’s making great decisions, he moves the ball down the field," Hill said.
SIU is playing its 10th Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent this season after earning a 22-10 road victory against South Dakota in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.
"We’re going to play every team in the Valley," Hill said. "Everybody talks about what a grind eight games in the Missouri Valley are, well we get 10 of them. ... This team is prepared for this."
Odds and ends
- The Bison have won 35 consecutive games after open weeks in both the regular season and postseason. That streak includes 19 home games, eight road games and eight FCS national title games in Frisco, Texas.
There is no shortage of experience on the SIU roster; several players are in their fifth or sixth year of school. NDSU, meanwhile, placed four players on the all-Valley Newcomer team, although only Williams is a starter. Quarterback Quincy Patterson, defensive end Loshiaka Roques and cornerback Marques Sigle also made the team. Southern Illinois was represented by cornerback David Miller.
- Hill is impressed with Bison wide receiver Christian Watson, who has seven touchdown catches and one touchdown run entering the playoffs. "Christian Watson is a unique player and tough to really contain and we’ve got to do a great job with that," Hill said. "He’ll have his opportunities and he’s made a lot of those opportunities this season."
- Southern Illinois is making its second consecutive postseason appearance. Prior to making the playoffs last spring, the Salukis hadn't made the postseason since 2009. " This isn’t time to feel good about ourselves and read off all the press clippings and feel good about it," Hill said. "It’s about preparing for a game. We’re playing an unbelievable team. It’s going to take some toughness and some gritty play to go up there and get a win on the road where a lot of teams haven’t."
- The NDSU Gold Star Marching Band gave its retiring director Sigurd Johnson a unique birthday present this week: a 6 a.m. concert at his house.
- NDSU is in the playoffs for the 12th straight season. Montana has the FCS record of 17 from 1993-2009. New Hampshire (2004-17) is next followed by the Bison.