McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-North Dakota game
This game is a big one with significant implications for UND, with the possibility of damaging NDSU's playoff aspirations to boot.
FARGO — Since beginning its transition to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2008, North Dakota hasn't had many — any? — regular-season games with the significance of Saturday's matchup at North Dakota State.
The Fighting Hawks won a Great West Conference title in 2011, but were ineligible for postseason play — so the importance of any regular-season game is up for debate.
They needed to beat Cal Poly on the road in their final regular-season game of 2015 to finish 7-4 and presumably make the postseason — and did. But the FCS playoff committee left UND out of the playoff field, so that victory was diminished.
UND needed to win at Northern Arizona in the regular-season finale in 2016 to clinch the Big Sky Conference championship and secure a playoff seed — and did. Huge victory in an important game. That's in the running.
Maybe in the spring season of 2021, you ask, when UND was awarded a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship? Nah. It was a five-game regular season crippled by COVID. The Hawks' biggest regular-season game that year was at NDSU and, because of the silliness of the season, not many viewed that contest as hugely significant even though UND was ranked No. 2 in the country and NDSU was rated No. 4.
Last year's game against NDSU in Grand Forks was as intense and important to UND and its fans as one could imagine. UND waited nearly two decades to get NDSU inside the Alerus Center and badly wanted to beat the Bison for the first time in Division I — sick as UND and Grand Forkers are over seeing and hearing about Bison football success — and the game felt like a massive contest. NDSU won a tight one, but even with the loss UND had seven more regular-season games in front of it.
But Saturday? This is a big one with significant implications for UND, with the possibility of damaging NDSU's playoff aspirations to boot.
A win for UND would, most obviously, be a victory over their much disliked in-state rival for the first time since 2003 (the teams have only met four times in the interim) and the Hawks — and their fans and media — could say they're equal to the mighty Bison.
But more important to this season, UND would finish 8-3 and possibly earn a seed for the postseason. That would give the Hawks a week off and guarantee they'd host at least one playoff game.
A UND victory would also probably bump NDSU from a seed and make the Bison play a first-round game Thanksgiving weekend before having to go on the road for their next one (assuming they won).
Unlike matchups between NDSU and UND in the dome in 2015 and 2019, this one should be a good contest. The Hawks are better and playing confidently well, while the Bison have performed unevenly most of the season and were hit by the injury bug to key starters. Three preseason All-Americans are sidelined, including star fullback Hunter Luepke.
So much on the line for both teams and, despite the offshore betting site 5Dimes having NDSU as an early 13.5-point favorite, it feels like a closer game than that.
Here are five things to watch in the Bison-North Dakota game.
And the QB advantage goes to ...
NDSU quarterback Cam Miller and his UND counterpart Tommy Schuster are almost equally efficient. Miller is 16th in FCS with a passing efficiency rating of 154.39 while Schuster ranks 19th at 152.11. It means, basically, that they complete a high percentage of their passes and do it for decent yardage, but don't throw many interceptions.
Indeed, Schuster is fourth in the country in completion percentage at 71.6% (217 of 303) and Miller is seventh at 69.1% (112 for 162). UND relies much more on its passing game than does NDSU, explaining why Schuster has so many more attempts.
QB play often decides big games and it's likely to play a factor in this one. Which quarterback will throw an interception? Who will run for a key first down? Who will complete a big third-down throw?
Miller hasn't played against UND yet, but has shown a penchant (mostly) for not making key mistakes in big games. He was rock-solid in last year's playoff run to a national championship, throwing just one meaningless interception in four games. Miller did have a couple of bad turnovers in a loss at South Dakota State last year and his fumble at Arizona this season was costly.
Schuster is having a spectacular junior season for the Hawks, but his performances against NDSU in two previous meetings have been less than that. He was an inexperienced true freshman in the spring 2021 game at the dome and finished 13 of 26 (50%) for a TD and one interception. Last year in Grand Forks, Schuster was 18 of 30 (60%) for a TD and one bad, costly interception deep in Bison territory.
UND has scored a total of 19 points in Schuster's two starts against NDSU. They'll likely have to score more than 19 points in this game to win.
But Schuster has been sharp, using his legs to extend plays and throwing particularly accurate passes to several receivers. His three years of experience are showing and with a better offensive line this year compared to last, Schuster is taking advantage. The Bison will pressure him, and how he handles that will be worth watching.
Whichever quarterback has the cleaner, more efficient game will go a long way toward determining the winner.
UND avoids self-inflicted wounds
UND plays clean games. We're not talking about the opposite of dirty, as it relates to football. UND is not a cheap team, but does play hard and physical under head coach Bubba Schweigert.
We're talking about the Fighting Hawks' penchant for avoiding turnovers and penalties. They don't hurt themselves. They don't give freebies to the opposition.
UND is one of the best in the country, in fact.
UND has the fewest penalties of any FCS team — there are 123 of them listed in the NCAA statistics — with 30. In 10 games. An average of three per game.
Those penalties have totaled only 286 yards.
That's fairly remarkable and a sign of a disciplined, well-coached team.
The Hawks also don't turn over the ball. They've lost only six turnovers all season, fourth-best in the country. Again in 10 games. Again a fairly remarkable statistic.
It adds up to UND making opposing teams earn what they get, while helping the Hawks' offense avoid unmanageable down-and-distances.
How many times has NDSU been hurt by big penalties on its offense this season?
It might explain why UND is also one of the best teams in time of possession. The Hawks are fifth in FCS in that category, averaging 34 minutes, 12 seconds in TOP.
If UND avoids penalties, turnovers and its offense stays on the field it will enhance its upset chances.
Who replaces Luepke?
NDSU has lost several key players to injuries like defensive tackle Eli Mostaert, tight end Noah Gindorff, offensive tackle Mason Miller, defensive end Jake Kava and fullback Hunter Luepke.
Luepke might be the biggest, despite the excellence of the others.
The All-American was an offensive weapon for which other teams had trouble accounting. Luepke has been called NDSU's best athlete, a combination of size and speed that most FCS teams don't have.
NDSU lined up Luepke as a tailback, fullback, tight end, slot receiver and even wide receiver. He could get tough yards running inside, could beat defenders to the outside and was an excellent downfield receiver.
Luepke was a player opposing defenses had to keep an eye on every play. James Madison and Montana State learned that in the playoffs last season.
With Luepke sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury, who takes his place as the go-to offensive player?
This will be a question for NDSU as long as they play this season.
The Bison will need to answer it starting with UND.
Without Luepke, it appears NDSU lacks an explosive playmaker. A year ago, when Christian Watson missed three playoff games because of an injury it was Luepke who stepped up.
In previous years, NDSU's quarterbacks could play that role if needed. Easton Stick and Trey Lance could take over a game with their running ability. But Miller isn't that kind of quarterback.
Running back Kobe Johnson has shown flashes of being explosive, but not consistently.
Receiver Zach Mathis is a consistent target, but not a game-breaker. Receiver D.J. Hart has speed and good hands, but hasn't yet had a breakout game.
Could running QB Cole Payton play a bigger role the rest of the season? Could Dom Gonnella emerge as a threat?
UND plays a high-risk defense, blitzing often. It gives up yards. NDSU will need to take advantage.
Finding an explosive threat to replace Luepke, if that's possible, will be key for NDSU.
UND special teams are special
UND's special teams have sparked a couple of victories by blocking punts. The Fighting Hawks have an impressive four blocked punts, including two against No. 1-ranked South Dakota State.
In the fourth quarter of a key 35-30 road victory over Youngstown State, redshirt freshman safety Cole Davis blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. It gave the Hawks a 35-24 lead and they were able to hang on.
Last week in picking up their seventh victory of the year against South Dakota, UND got a punt block by Malachi McNeal that led to a touchdown late in the second quarter. The block helped turn a 13-7 deficit into a 14-13 halftime lead and the momentum pushed UND to a 28-19 win.
"Special teams were huge in this game," McNeal said, according to the Grand Forks Herald. "They call it the little things, but they're not so little when you see how big of an impact they have on a game."
UND's C.J. Siegel also blocked a fourth-quarter extra point to keep the Fighting Hawks' lead at two scores.
UND has three blocked kicks this year.
The special teams play has sometimes helped a defense that has trouble getting off the field. The Hawks rank 116th of 123 FCS teams in third down defense. They allow opponents to convert 49% of the time. That could be an issue against NDSU, which is third in the nation in third-down conversions at 53.9%.
Expect the Hawks to come after NDSU punter Kaedin Steindorf if the situation is favorable.
NDSU defense getting better
Given how strong the Bison have been defensively since their FCS dynasty began in 2011, seeing a few running backs rush for more than 100 yards early in the season — and some of the running lanes they had — was alarming to longtime NDSU watchers.
The Bison struggled to find a linebacker rotation because of graduation, a transfer portal departure and an injury. With injuries to Eli Mostaert and Jake Kava on the defensive line, their front was left thin and inexperienced.
It looked like NDSU wasn't going to measure up defensively for the first time in a long time.
Things are looking up.
The Bison are ranked fifth in total defense nationally, allowing 287.6 yards per game. SDSU's vaunted defense gives up 270.5.
NDSU allows 16.89 points per game, sixth in the country. SDSU is one spot better, allowing 16.40 points a game.
And that rush defense that was so troublesome early in the year? It's still not lockdown, but NDSU is allowing 145.3 yards per game on the ground. That's terrible, right? Well, UND is giving up 141.1 yards a game.
It's all perspective.
NDSU's secondary has been excellent all season. Safeties Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber are elite FCS players and the cornerbacks are talented and plentiful. The Bison are one of the best pass defense teams in the nation.
The improvement has come at linebacker and along the defensive line.
Cole Wisniewski returned from an offseason Achilles injury to provide a big, fast, rangy linebacker. Redshirt freshman Logan Kopp made his first career start against Illinois State late in the year and made play after play. Sixth-year senior James Kaczor has been everywhere.
The Bison have speed at linebacker and in the secondary.
On the defensive line, tackles Will Mostaert and Javier Derritt are more disruptive. End Spencer Waege has been a problem for offensive lines. Youngster Kole Menz has played better in a limited role.
NDSU's defensive line is still not the ferocious group it's been on some title teams, but it's better than it was early in the year.
Generally, the Bison are tackling better and swarming the ball-carrier more.
It's likely UND offensive coordinator Danny Freund, known for good schemes and incorporating trickery, will dial up some plays. But unless the Hawks can consistently move the ball and keep possession against the Bison defense, it'll be tough for UND.