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McFeely blog: Five things to watch in the Bison-Illinois State game

The Redbirds appear to be a long way from when they had Tre Roberson at quarterback, Marshaun Coprich at running back, James O'Shaughnessy at tight end and a host of dudes on defense in Frisco, Texas.

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North Dakota State's Lane Tucker, left, and James Kaczor pressure Illinois State's Bryce Jefferson on Saturday, March 13, in the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — Oh, for the halcyon days of 2014 and 2015 when both North Dakota State and Illinois State were Football Championship Subdivision giants. The Bison and Redbirds met in a classic — perhaps the most classic — national championship game in the division's history after the 2014 season, which NDSU won. The Redbirds were poised for another matchup with the Bison in the 2015 playoffs, but lost unexpectedly en route.

As it stands the Bison have now won 10 straight against Illinois State, dating to 2010. And it will be considered an upset if the Redbirds win this Saturday in Normal, Ill. NDSU (5-0) opened as 21.5-point favorites against Illinois State (2-3).

For sure, only one of these programs remains an FCS giant.

The Bison, three TD favorites. At Normal. Yeesh.

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But that appears to the be the state of longtime head coach Brock Spack's program. After seeing his roster decimated by opt-outs and transfers when the fall 2020 season was postponed to spring 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Redbirds are in rebuild mode.

After shutting down the spring season after four games because he believed his team was too thin on the defensive line, the ISU student newspaper reported there were some players who thought Spack was too quick to pull the plug. So there's some stuff going on in Normal.

It's a long way from where Illinois State was when it had Tre Roberson at quarterback, Marshaun Coprich at running back, James O'Shaughnessy at tight end and a host of dudes on defense in Frisco, Texas.

Here are five things to watch in Saturday's game.

Jefferson movin' on up

Bryce Jefferson will return as the Redbirds' starting quarterback after suffering a bruised shoulder in the second game of the year against Western Michigan. He's in his third season of action after redshirting in 2018, but has yet to prove he can consistently move Illinois State's offense.

Jefferson is completing fewer than 50% of his passes over the course of his career and averages about 75 passing yards per game. Yet Spack is returning him to the starting lineup over freshman Jackson Waring, who did OK as the starter the past two games in Jefferson's absence.

Waring remains inexperienced and isn't as mobile as Jefferson, so perhaps that's the head coach's reasoning. Perhaps both QBs will play against the Bison.

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It figures to be a tough return for Jefferson. The Bison defense, despite missing some starters because of injuries, is again one of the best units in FCS. And the quarterback's history against the Bison isn't good.

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Illinois State quarterback Bryce Jefferson attempts to spin past North Dakota State free safety James Hendricks during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome last Saturday. David Samson / The Forum

In a 2019 playoff game at the Fargodome, the Redbirds offense tallied just nine first downs in a 9-3 Bison victory. Jefferson was 3 of 8 for 34 yards and one interception. Illinois State had just 194 total yards, even with stud running back James Robinson on the team.

In a 2021 spring game at the dome, a 21-13 Bison victory, Jefferson was 9 of 26 with an interception and a TD. He had 124 passing yards in that game as the Redbirds had 257 total yards.

If the Bison defense can stop Illinois State's running game and make Jefferson have to throw, it could get interesting. And by interesting we mean ugly.

Redbirds weakness vs. Bison strength

Speaking of Illinois State's offense, it isn't good in fall 2021. And it will have to match up against the Bison defense. This should heavily favor NDSU.

Illinois State ranks near the bottom of most Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive categories. They are last in number of plays run and time of possession, and ninth of 10 teams in several categories including total offense, scoring offense, first downs and pass completions (ahead of only NDSU).

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Against FBS opponent Western Michigan, the Redbirds had 57 yards of offense. Total. In four quarters.

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North Dakota State's Logan McCormick celebrates a sack on Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day at the Fargodome on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

NDSU, meanwhile, rates highly in most defensive categories not only in the Valley but in FCS. The Bison are first in the conference in total defense (252 yards per game), scoring defense (8.6 points per game), rush defense (73.4 yards per game) and passing defense (178.6 yards per game).

The Bison rank No. 1 nationally in red-zone defense (.429) and scoring defense (8.6 ppg), fifth in total defense (252.0 ypg) and seventh in rushing defense (73.4 ypg).

If those trends hold, how is Illinois State going to get to 20 points, for example, which might be the low end of what it needs to win the game?

Red zone? What red zone?

You want perhaps the most amazing statistic that encapsulates NDSU's season thus far: The Bison have allowed opponents inside their 20-yard line (the red zone) only seven times in five games.

Almost as amazing, the Bison have allowed opponents to score only three times on those seven trips inside the 20 (two touchdowns, one field goal).

North Dakota did not possess the ball inside the Bison's 20-yard line once in a 16-10 NDSU victory two weeks ago. The Hawks' only TD of the game came on a 30-yard pass play. Their deepest penetration into Bison territory was the 25, which ended in an interception.

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North Dakota State's Eli Mostaert closes in to sack Albany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler at the Fargodome on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

By comparison, Western Illinois has allowed its foes to penetrate the red zone 22 times in six games. Indiana State (six games) and Youngstown State (five games) have allowed opponents inside the red zone 20 times apiece.

More stats that portend trouble for the Redbirds:

Illinois State is last in the Valley at converting third-down chances, going only 15 of 56 for 26.79%. Conversely, NDSU's defense is allowing opponents to convert on third down 22.06% of the time (15 of 68).

So much seems to be stacked against the Redbirds' offense in this game.

article7237033.ece Bison or Redbirds: Who will win? Illinois State Redbirds or NDSU Bison : Who do you think will win? Bison Redbirds

Running backs redux

After a crackling start against inferior opponents in their first three games, the Bison haven't run the ball quite as impressively in its most recent two contests. NDSU entered the game at North Dakota averaging 348.3 rushing yards per game, and still ran for a respectable 223 yards that day. The Bison ran for just 181 yards against Northern Iowa.

While the Bison still lead FCS with 289.8 rushing yards per game, it feels like they need to get back to the ground-and-pound philosophy that's brought them so much success. They have to get their running backs going again.

Quarterback Quincy Patterson II was the key runner for NDSU against a stout UNI defense, converting a couple of key third downs on long runs. NDSU never did get their stable of running backs moving consistently. The Bison's longest run from scrimmage by a running back against the Panthers was a 13-yarder by Kobe Johnson. Dom Gonnella, Hunter Luepke, Jalen Bussey and TaMerik Williams couldn't break free for big gainers.

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North Dakota State's Jalen Bussey carries against Eastern Washington during their first-round FCS football playoff game Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

It'd be nice to see a couple of home runs — or at least some doubles — by change-up backs Johnson and Bussey. Bussey had a 72-yard run against Valparaiso, but other than that his long run for the year is 12 yards against Towson.

After two rugged games running the ball, Patterson needs a break. If the Bison want to keep him as healthy as possible heading into the stretch run of the season — i.e. the game at South Dakota State in early November — they'd best be limiting the quarterbacks' carries to a handful a game instead of the relying on him for a ground attack.

Patterson had 19 carries against UND and 12 against UNI. Some were scrambles on called pass plays, but it would behoove NDSU to limit Patterson's planned runs to five or fewer against the Redbirds.

Watching Wisniewski

This is the time of the FCS season when depth becomes a factor and historically NDSU has shown better depth than other programs. Injuries stack up and how a team can fill in for missing players plays a big role in winning and losing.

Injuries, like they do for all football teams, continue to play a factor for the Bison.

NDSU lost potential All-American defensive end Spencer Waege for the season to a knee injury. Starting defensive end Brayden Thomas suffered an elbow injury against UND that kept him out against UNI. Defensive end Tony Pierce left the UNI game with what appeared to be a leg injury. Standout starting linebacker James Kaczor missed his third game of the year against the Panthers with what was described as an injury related to the groin injury he suffered in the spring season. Backup linebacker Luke Weerts has been sidelined for two games, too.

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North Dakota State linebacker Cole Wisniewski assists on a tackle of Northern Iowa's Bradrick Shaw with teammates Jasir Cox and Jackson Hankey on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

And that's just the defense. Offensively, starting center Jalen Sundell suffered a knee injury against UND and didn't play against UNI.

Other than knowing Waege is out for the season, its unclear when or if the other injured Bison players will return.

So far, NDSU has been able to plug the holes. One of the best examples is at linebacker, where sophomore Cole Wisniewski replaced Kaczor and made a season-high six tackles including five solo stops against UNI with one sack and one quarterback hurry.

Pushed into action as a true freshman in the spring season because of Kaczor's groin injury, Wisniewski has been getting better weekly after some rough moments during the spring.

And at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds Wisniewski brings some needed size to a linebacker group that is undersized by Bison standards.

The Bison remain the best defense statistically in FCS, even with numerous injuries to key players. If they can keep their current players healthy and get some of the injured players back for the stretch run, it bodes well for later in the season.

Related Topics: THE MCFEELY MESS
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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