Game Day notebook: Bison OL Grey Zabel proves invaluable with his versatility
NDSU junior Grey Zabel is slated to start at right tackle against UND for an injured Mason Miller.
FARGO — North Dakota State lost its second starter along the offensive line after right tackle Mason Miller suffered a season-ending injury against Southern Illinois last weekend. Senior center Jalen Sundell is out indefinitely after having foot surgery about a month ago.
The unit has continued to thrive, however, despite the key injuries as the Bison are rushing for 251.6 yards per game.
"I think the biggest thing is our guys have confidence in the next guy up," said Bison offensive line coach Dan Larson. "They've all been around each other three, four, five years now so I think when the next guy goes in they don't flinch."
Junior Grey Zabel is set to start at right tackle at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against the University of North Dakota in Missouri Valley Football Conference play at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Zabel has been the team's sixth extra offensive lineman this season and has played in formations in which the Bison use an extra linemen.
“Any position to help the team is my favorite position," said Zabel, who has the ability to play all positions along the offensive line.
His first career start came against UND during his true freshman season in the spring of 2021. He played guard in that game.
"“It was definitely nerve wracking," Zabel said of that first start. "It was really exciting. Any time you can start a game for NDSU it means a lot to you. I really didn’t understand what it truly meant to be playing Bison football.”
Zabel made a start at left guard earlier this season against Youngstown State in place of senior Nash Jensen, who missed that game due to injury.
"He's a guy that's worked really hard at understanding what goes on at every position," Larson said of Zabel. "I think that's things he's watched upperclassmen do throughout the course of the year. Whatever spot we have to put him in, I wasn't going to be too concerned about it."
Junior Brandon Westberg has started the previous five games at center in place of Sundell. Senior left tackle Cody Mauch and senior right guard Jake Kubas have started every game this season at their respective positions. Miller started every game at right tackle prior to his injury. Jensen has started at left guard for every game but one.
“That’s just the chemistry in the room, leadership in the room, as well," Zabel said. "Nash Jensen, Cody Mauch, awesome leaders in the room."
Bison head coach Matt Entz said Zabel has been invaluable with his versatility.
"He might be the best sixth offensive lineman in the country," Entz said. "I think he could start for a number of schools all over the place. That's how special I think he is, especially with athleticism."
Senior Week has different look to it
NDSU's traditional "Senior Week" that concludes with the introductions of players in their last regular season home game at the dome has changed in the last couple of years because of the pandemic.
For one, a senior isn't necessarily a senior anymore because of the extra year of eligibility. Safeties Dawson Weber and Michael Tutsie, offensive linemen Cody Mauch, Luke LaCilento and Nash Jensen, linebacker James Kaczor, fullback Hunter Luepke, running back TaMerik Williams, tight end Noah Gindorff and defensive end Spencer Waege are in their final year. In addition, running back Jalen Bussey and defensive back Anthony Coleman, both juniors, are graduating and playing in their last home game.
"It's kind of unique," Entz said. "We haven't really had a full class that will graduate together since COVID happened. It's always partial classes, people coming back and I think it hits more of the team because everyone's kind of connected differently now."
Seniors expected back next year are cornerback Jayden Price, linebacker Julian Wlodarczyk, offensive linemen Jalen Sundell and Jake Kubas, receiver Zach Mathis, running back Kobe Johnson and defensive ends Jake Kava and Tony Pierce.
Jensen sets record, gets all-star invite
Jensen, by the way, who wears jersey No. 66, will play in his 66th career game, breaking the Bison career record of 65 games set last year by fellow offensive lineman Cordell Volson. Jensen redshirted in 2017, played on special teams in 2018 and started all but one game in the past four seasons, including the COVID-19 season that didn't count toward his eligibility.
He also became the third NDSU player to receive a post-season all-star invitation. The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Jan. 28 at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. The game was started in 2012 by the NFL Players Association.
"Can't thank everyone enough who have been involved with my process in my career," Jensen said on his personal Twitter account. "Work isn't done yet."
Mauch and Luepke have both accepted invitations to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
FCS showdowns on Saturday
NDSU and UND isn't the only hotly contested rivalry game in the FCS on Saturday, where playoff spots and playoff seeds will be on the line. Perhaps the marquee matchup is happening in Bozeman, Mont., for the annual "Brawl of the Wild" game between 13th-ranked Montana and No. 3 Montana State. Adding spice to the day: ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will be at MSU on a day when the forecasted high temperature is in the high 20s, but is expected to be colder for the 10 a.m. MDT start to the show.
It's the second major matchup in the Big Sky Conference with No. 2-ranked Sacramento State hosting No. 24 UC Davis in the "Causeway Classic." Sac State is gunning for an undefeated regular season while at 6-4, UC Davis could make a strong case for reaching the 24-team playoff field with a victory. The Aggies have won five straight.
It will be the 121st meeting between the two schools. That's 12 fewer than eighth-ranked William and Mary and No. 11 Richmond, who will be playing for the "Capital Cup" in Richmond. William & Mary, Richmond and New Hampshire are all 6-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association, with New Hampshire having a victory over Richmond. William & Mary and UNH don't play each other.
In the Southern Conference, No. 9 Samford hosts No. 19 Mercer with Samford having the opportunity to further strengthen its resume at 9-1 overall with the only loss to the University of Georgia. Samford secured the SoCon title last weekend with a win at Chattanooga.
Etc. etc. etc.
- UND has won the close games this year. The Fighting Hawks are 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has won six of the last seven one-score games.
- It will be the 115th meeting between the two schools, with UND holding a 62-49-3 lead dating back to 1894. The Bison are 4-0 in the Division I matchups that started in 2015 with three of those being staged at the Fargodome.
- It's also the annual Harvest Bowl at NDSU and the Bison will be wearing their green helmets with the stalk of wheat stripe in the middle. NDSU is 42-2-2 in its previous 46 Harvest Bowl games. UND has never been a Harvest Bowl opponent.
- The Fighting Hawks are the least penalized team in the FCS averaging just 3.5 a game and 33.1 yards per game. The Bison tied a season low with 25 yards of penalties at Southern Illinois last week.