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McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-Arizona game

In most recent FBS games, NDSU has dominated the turnover category; it'll need to again to beat the Wildcats

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North Dakota State’s Hunter Luepke sprints towards the end zone for a touchdown against Drake during the season opener football game on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at the Fargodome.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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TUCSON — "Go on and send me down to Tucson and I'll get the job done," crooned country singer Mel Tillis in 1979. Huge hit. It was, ahem, not in reference to a football game — although surely about a popular sport — but it would be a fitting battle cry for North Dakota State this week.

The Bison have their first game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since 2016 and, after having what promised to be an epic matchup against Oregon cancelled in 2020 because of COVID, the program and its fans are champing at the bit for a big-time game.

They'll get their chance late Saturday night and early Sunday morning against Arizona, a Pac-12 Conference team in Tucson. The Wildcats were a disaster last season, finishing 1-11, but look much-improved this year after second-year head coach Jedd Fisch brought in 25 transfers and put together a top recruiting class.

Arizona isn't going to be contending for a spot in the College Football Playoffs, but it will present a difficult challenge to the lower-division FCS Bison. The Wildcats, by virtue of being an FBS school that recruits Los Angeles and southern California, will have athletes that, say, Indiana State doesn't.

But the Bison have a shot. As of this writing, offshore oddsmaker 5Dimes had NDSU as a one-point favorite. They view it as a coin-flip game.

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If NDSU can get the job done in Tucson, it'll surely be among the most pleasurable and satisfying wins since 2016.

Here are five things to watch in the Bison-Arizona game:

The late, hot show

Fox Sports 1, which is televising the game, deems its late kickoffs "Pac-12 After Dark," although post-prime time starts are nothing new in the West Coast-based conference. The game will begin at about 8 p.m. Tucson time, which is 10 p.m. Fargo time. It is a weird starting time for a team from the Midwest like NDSU, which plays most of its games in the early afternoon.

Not that a noon local time kickoff would be the best option in southern Arizona in September. Saturday's forecasted high temperature is 100 degrees. When Arizona hosted Mississippi State last weekend, game time temperature was still a toasty 84 degrees.

It is going to be a late, hot night for the Bison.

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NDSU head coach Matt Entz will hold his weekly press conference to discuss the big topics of the season following another win this past weekend against North Carolina A&T Aggies and before this week's game against the Arizona Wildcats.

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NDSU head coach Matt Entz said he's not overly concerned about either factor. A 10 p.m. kickoff for college students? Meh.

"As far as us playing in the evening, these kids are night owls. They're not gonna have any problems staying up," Entz said. "I anticipate there's gonna be a great crowd. It's going to be a raucous environment, and I don't think we'll have any problems keeping them engaged."

Brock Jensen scores game-winning touchdown
North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen (16) falls backwards into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown late in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. North Dakota State defeated Kansas State 24-21. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The heat will be a factor for whichever defense is on the field most in the second half, whether that's NDSU or Arizona. The Wildcats' defense at times looked gassed against Mississippi State, and Arizona players live in the heat every day.

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And, of course, NDSU has The Kramer Factor. Longtime head strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer has been cited for years as a key contributor to the Bison's success. He was credited when NDSU beat Kansas State in a 2013 game played on a 100-degree night.

Entz also brought up the "dry heat" of the desert.

"I just saw the numbers the other night and it looked like it said the humidity was 48%. I don't know meteorology. I grew up on a farm so that's about as close to it as I can get, but that doesn't seem real high as far as humidity," Entz said. "Again different week, different day. It might look completely different."

Arizona players making plays

I wrote this week about "The Jayden de Laura Experience," the wild ride on which Arizona's sophomore quarterback will take his team, coaches and fans. He is supremely talented, but plays an often undisciplined, gunslinger style that can lead to big plays or big mistakes.

De Laura (who wears uniform No. 7) has four interceptions in two games, including three last week against Mississippi State, but has thrown five touchdown passes.

One thing to watch with de Laura against NDSU is whether he attempts to run for yardage while scrambling. The guy will sprint all over the field to avoid a sack, but has yet to run the ball past the line of scrimmage. Fisch said he's told de Laura to get a few yards with his legs, if the opportunity presents itself. It's better than throwing a bad pass, after all.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arizona
Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) throws a pass during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Sept. 10, 2022 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

But the quarterback isn't the only skilled offensive player on the Wildcats.

As Fisch is trying to build a winner from the ashes at Arizona, he's hit the transfer portal and recruiting trail hard — and he's loaded up mostly on offensive talent.

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Receivers Jacob Cowing (2), Dorian Singer (5) and true freshman Tetairoa McMillan (4) are speedsters who have the ability to make tacklers miss and gain extra yardage. Running back Michael Wiley (6) is 200 pounds and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Running backs DJ Williams (32) and Jonah Coleman (24) are both 225 pounds.

All of these players could present problems for NDSU's defense, particularly a young and largely inexperienced front seven.

"We've got to find a way to try to slow them down a little bit. If you can get them off schedule, they seem to slow down," Entz said. "A lot of shrunken sets, which can cause some issues defensively at different times. You can kind of conflict some players run-game-wise and or in coverage. I get concerned about some of their athletes that they have."

Which leads into our next item.

No whiffing allowed

Through its first two games, NDSU's defense has not been great at tackling. This is not optimal since the Bison play tackle football.

According to analytics firm Pro Football Focus, NDSU missed 12 tackles in its opener against Drake and a whopping 19 tackles in Week 2 against North Carolina A&T. If the Bison miss 19 tackles against Arizona, they will lose. It's that simple.

North Carolina A&T running back Bhayshul Tuten had 127 yards on 24 attempts, often shedding Bison defenders to pick up extra yardage. Tuten is 5-foot-11, 195 pounds. Wiley, Williams and Coleman are all bigger backs than Tuten.

NDSU also had trouble tackling in space along the edges. A back or receiver would catch the ball, break a tackle and get yardage. That is the bread and butter of Arizona's offense, so it would seem to be a problem area for NDSU heading into this game.

"We missed way too many tackles," Entz said.

NDSU linebackers combined to miss 10 tackles, according to PFF. That position was one of concern entering the season with the graduation of middle linebacker Jackson Hankey, an injury to Cole Wisniewski and Jasir Cox going into the transfer portal. It will have to be better against the Wildcats.

Keep the 'Turnover Sword' sheathed

Arizona has something called the "Turnover Sword," which the Wildcats players trot out when the defense creates a turnover. It's the thing in college football these days, to have some sort of prop to celebrate takeaways.

The Bison, obviously, want to limit the number of times the Wildcats are parading the sword around the sidelines. Zero times would be best. One time could be acceptable. More than that likely would end in a bad result for the Bison.

So far, although the competition was far different, NDSU has an edge in turnovers over Arizona. Through two games, the Bison are plus-5 in turnover margin and have yet to lose a turnover this season. The Wildcats are even, gaining five turnovers and losing five (including four interceptions).

Again, NDSU and Arizona didn't face equal competition. The Bison have wins over Drake and North Carolina A&T. The Wildcats split with San Diego State and Mississippi State.

But turnovers are important in every game, and particularly in games between FCS and FBS teams.

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North Dakota State safety Dawson Weber tackles Drake’s Ian Corwin causing him to lose control of the ball that led to a turnover and Bison touchdown during the season opener football game on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at the Fargodome.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

"We've got to be really good on third down and we've got to find ways to create some extra possessions a time or two during the course of the game," Entz said.

In recent history, the Bison have a distinct advantage in the turnover department when playing FBS competition.

In its last six FBS games, all wins, NDSU is a combined plus-8 in turnover margin. The Bison have won the turnover battle in five of the six games (they were even with Iowa at one turnover apiece). Against Iowa State, Minnesota and Kansas the Bison were plus-2.

The Bison have dominated the points off turnovers statistic in their last six FBS games, too. NDSU had a total of 36 points off turnovers in those contests, compared to seven for its opponents. The only game in which NDSU didn't convert a turnover into points was Kansas State in 2013.

Those are remarkable statistics to post against higher-level competition, particularly when five of the games were against Power Five programs.

NDSU has three pick-sixes in the most recent six FBS games. Marcus Williams scored twice following interceptions against Minnesota (although one was on a lateral from Colten Heagle, who made the interception) and M.J. Stumpf took a batted pass out of the air and ran into the end zone against Iowa.

Football 101: If NDSU wins the turnover margin against Arizona like it has in its last six FBS games, the Bison's chances of winning grow.

Prime time for the prime players

Former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly had a term for his team's most talented, clutch players as "big knockers." He said those players had to show up in the biggest games.

Guess who has to show up for NDSU against Arizona?

No, not Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek.

The Bison's version of "big knockers" have to play their best and have an impact on the game if NDSU hopes to win.

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North Dakota State's Noah Gindorff carries against Southern Illinois during their NCAA FCS second-round football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Communications Co.

We're talking the players who are NFL prospects: tight end Noah Gindorff, left tackle Cody Mauch, fullback Hunter Luepke and defensive end Spencer Waege. Those are NDSU's best players and they have to show it against an FBS foe.

"Your good players need to be good on Saturday," Entz said.

Brock Jensen, Carson Wentz, Easton Stick, Marcus Williams, Billy Turner, Nick DeLuca, John Crockett, Joe Haeg. All guys who played in the NFL and all guys who had major impacts in Bison victories over FBS opponents.

They weren't the only ones, of course, but the best players have to be at their best against higher-level competition.

When NDSU had its most impressive victory over an FBS opponent, in 2016 at Iowa, it was the quarterback Stick who was making the key run on the game-winning drive and making key throws in the fourth quarter. Jensen was the quarterback who was massive in the game-winning drive at Kansas State.

To beat Arizona, the Bison need more of the same out of their best players.

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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