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McFeely: Bison machine shows it's, gasp, not perfect

NDSU shrugs off poor first half against South Dakota, rolls in second half to restore order

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North Dakota State's Jake Kubas blocks South Dakota’s Makai Lovett during their football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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VERMILLION, S.D. — What on Ron Erhardt's green and yellow Earth was that?

Three turnovers. In a half.

A needless roughing-the-punter penalty. Other brain-freeze miscues that were costly. Missed tackles. Overthrown passes.

North Dakota State's football team was so bad in the latter stages of the first half Saturday that head coach Matt Entz ordered his quarterback to take a knee with 45 seconds left and two timeouts in his pocket.

Haven't seen that before.

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Lesson learned: No matter how good you are, or think you are, you can't treat the football like an oblong stick of butter and expect to win.

"We needed to get in and regroup a little bit and just settle down in the second half," Entz said.

Mission accomplished. Trailing 17-10 at halftime after the worst 30 minutes of football a Bison team has played since 2009 — when they went 3-8 — NDSU came out in the second half and dominated. The final score was 34-17 in favor of the top-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, which looked nothing like that description over the first two quarters.

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NDSU overcame a seven-point halftime deficit and rallied to victory in its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener at the University of South Dakota.

Bison fans, and maybe even media that covers the team, were melting down on social media during the first half. Did somebody stick a "for sale" sign in Entz's front yard at halftime? They do that in some football towns.

If so, it was removed later in the day. Order was restored over the final two quarters and the Bison will enter homecoming week against Youngstown State 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, avoiding talk of an imminent disaster. With the Penguins and sad-sack Indiana State up next on the schedule, the Bison stand a good chance of being 5-1 before South Dakota State visits Fargo on Oct. 15.

The Jackrabbits whipped Missouri State 28-14 on Saturday, showing Bobby Petrino's crew that there are still only two dogs at the top of the Valley.

"I'm not really involved too much on Twitter," said Bison safety Dawson Weber. "Bison Nation loves us, man, we love them and we're just fortunate to get them a win today."

The question is what this means going forward for the Bison. Anointed as a slam-dunk Frisco finalist prior to the season because it had so many returning players, NDSU's dismal first half might've cracked open the door for others to shove through. Through the nine national championship seasons in the previous 11 years — and even the two years in which the Bison didn't celebrate in Texas — there was nothing like what occurred at the DakotaDome.

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The Bison haven't won every game during their dynasty, but they have never played as sloppy and loose as they did Saturday for half the game.

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North Dakota State's TaMerik Williams carries against South Dakota during their football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

An interception by NDSU's Luke Weerts followed immediately by a lost fumble from Jalen Bussey. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Weber that boosted a USD touchdown drive. A fumble by Dom Gonnella as the Bison were trying to run out the first-half clock, leading to a quick Coyotes touchdown and a 17-10 lead.

Then the knee by Cam Miller, a submissive tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.

But according to Entz and Bison players, there was no panic. There was no paint peeled off the locker room walls at halftime. Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi didn't come back from the dead to inspire NDSU.

"I thought we were playing a little tense. We were moving the ball on them really well, we just couldn't finish," Bison fullback Hunter Luepke said after the game, calm as always. "I think people were just trying to do a little too much, not just doing their 1/11th."

Asked if the Bison suffered a hangover from a frustrating loss at Pac-12 opponent Arizona last Saturday, Entz said no almost before the question was finished.

"I think it's stress. I think it's pressure that guys wanted to win the last one and now everyone wanted to try to do a little bit more to ensure that we won this one," Entz said. "We just needed to play the calls, play good defense, play the offense and get out of our own way."

They did that. The Bison steamrolled in the second half, playing nearly mistake-free. Only a late penalty marred a clean second half. NDSU's defense blanked the Coyotes in the second half, forcing two turnovers. The Bison rushed for 200 yards after halftime, controlling the ball for 12:35 of the fourth quarter.

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North Dakota State's Luke Weerts sacks South Dakota’s Carson Camp, forcing a punt, during their football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Vermillion, South Dakota.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

We might've learned a little something about this edition of the Bison. It's mature enough to pick itself from a Hindenburg-sized disaster and find a way to win. There are teams that tap out when things aren't going their way.

"I never felt like the sideline was fractured or at a loss. They were as mad as anyone at halftime," Entz said. "They knew we kept getting in our own way with penalties and turnovers."

The truth? NDSU was lucky it was USD. There is margin for error against the Coyotes. Likely not so much against the Jackrabbits. If this Bison crew has conference and national title aspirations, there can be no more halves like the first one Saturday.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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