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

A Bison win would give NDSU the inside track to go 11-0 and gain a top-two seed for the postseason, meaning the road to Frisco would again go through Fargo. A Jackrabbits win would soothe two unexpected home losses and put SDSU in position to earn a high seed while possibly knocking the Bison from an all-home road to the title game.

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South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. (20) has rushed for 986 yards and 12 touchdowns through eight games this fall to lead the Jackrabbits. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — It's supposed to be about 65 degrees and sunny in Brookings, S.D., on Saturday.

That would be Saturday, Nov. 6, when the average high temperature for Brookings is 45 degrees.

Will the weather be the only noteworthy item of the day when North Dakota State and South Dakota State play their annual battle for the Dakota Marker trophy?

Likely not.

This matchup of top Football Championship Subdivision programs — NDSU is 8-0 and ranked second nationally while SDSU is 6-2 and ranked ninth — always produces big plays, memorable outcomes and impacts to the FCS postseason.

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SDSU is favored by 2.5 points.
There's a better-than-average chance one of these teams will win a national championship in Frisco, Texas, in early January. Saturday's game could go a long way toward determining that.

A Bison win would give NDSU the inside track to go 11-0 and gain a top-two seed for the postseason, meaning the road to Frisco would again go through Fargo.

A Jackrabbits win would soothe two unexpected home losses and put SDSU in position to earn a high seed while possibly knocking the Bison from an all-home road to the title game.

That's pretty good motivation for SDSU.

So much drama. So much at stake. So much FCS talent on both sides.

That's the Dakota Marker game.

Here are five things to watch Saturday:

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Rub some dirt on it

It's the time of year when injuries begin to stack up for college football teams. For these squads, the stacking began weeks ago.

Who will be on the field might play a major role in determining the outcome.

NDSU head coach Matt Entz said in his Monday press conference he expected SDSU stars Isaiah Davis, a running back, and Don Gardner, a cornerback, to play after being injured early in the season.

Davis would give the Jacks a strong one-two punch in the backfield with likely NFL Draft pick Pierre Strong Jr. Davis hurt his shoulder in Week 2 against Lindenwood.

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South Dakota State's Isaiah Davis gets by North Dakota State's James Kaczor on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at the Fargodome. David Samson / The Forum

Gardner suffered a broken arm in Week 3 against Indiana State. He was an All-American in the spring season.

SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier won't reveal who's going to play, of course.

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Of course, Stig is the guy who once told media that a player was hurt so bad he wouldn't even be able to ride the bus to Fargo for a playoff game, much less play in it. Then the player rode the bus, started the game and played wonderfully. So maybe not saying anything is better than that.

NDSU has been getting healthier after an early wave of injuries to key players, but perhaps their biggest question mark is quarterback Quincy Patterson II. He was the team's starter for the first seven games before sustaining a shoulder injury against Indiana State.

It appears as if Patterson has been replaced as the starter by Cam Miller, but could QP2 be available for a run package or short-yardage situation considering that was his strength?

He's a Strong runner

Speaking of Strong, even if Davis doesn't play NDSU will face the best running back in FCS. He's projected by some to be a third-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Strong ranks third in FCS with 986 rushing yards.

And he's always had good success against the Bison, who've historically been one of the best programs at stopping the run.

In three previous games against NDSU, Strong has rushed for 350 yards and two touchdowns on 50 attempts, averaging 7.0 yards per carry and 116.7 yards per game.

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North Dakota State's James Kaczor stops South Dakota State's Pierre Strong on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at the Fargodome. David Samson / The Forum

In last spring's 27-17 Jackrabbits victory at the Fargodome, Strong had 95 yards on 11 carries. Included was a 53-yard TD run in the third quarter that gave SDSU a 17-10 lead.

"He’s got great acceleration. He can put a foot in the ground and make you miss," Entz said. "He has that ability to make that cut, that one-step cut, where most average backs would take three steps to cut, he can do it in one. I think he’s strong, he’s gotten stronger."

SDSU also threw four passes to Strong in the spring game, which gained a total of 50 yards. The Jackrabbits would have Strong and Davis run short angle routes out of the backfield and make NDSU's defenders tackle them in space. Most often, the Bison weren't able to. Missed tackles were a problem.

One area in which the Bison have to improve if they hope to win: They'll have to tackle better, and that specifically means tackling Strong. At 5-foot-11, 205-pounds Strong is difficult to bring down.

Tight End U ... both of them

NDSU and SDSU are both known for producing big, talented tight ends. Both schools have tight ends in the NFL this season.

This year's teams are no different. NDSU has seniors Noah Gindorff (6-7, 266) and Josh Babicz (6-6, 255) and SDSU has sophomore Tucker Kraft (6-5, 255) and junior Zach Heins (6-7, 250).

All are strong blockers, all can catch the ball and be used as offensive weapons.

While NDSU struggled to get the ball to Gindorff and Babicz until last week's victory over Indiana State, SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun has relied on Kraft to be his top pass-catcher. Kraft has 40 receptions for 501 yards and four TDs in the Jacks' eight games.

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North Dakota State's Josh Babicz celebrates a touchdown against Indiana State with Cody Mauch during their football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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“We’ve got some very good tight ends and they do also and probably the premier tight ends, the ones that I’ve seen, in the Missouri Valley Football Conference," Stiegelmeier said. "Both of us like to run the football. With running the football comes play-action pass and many times you’re hitting that tight up the seam or on a drag on in the flat. We utilize that and I know North Dakota State does.”

NDSU didn't utilize its tight ends much at all until last week's 44-2 win over the Sycamores at the Fargodome.

Gindorff and Babicz entered that game with a combined 10 receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Babicz hadn't caught a pass since the season opener against Albany.

But on the Bison's first possession, Miller beat a Sycamores blitz by finding Babicz open down the middle of the field for a 55-yard gain to the Indiana State 6. Two plays later, Miller hit a wide-open Babicz in the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 Bison lead.

Later in the first quarter from the Bison 12, Miller hit Gindorff on a similar play for a 43-yard gain to Indiana State's 45.

Expect the tight ends to have a big impact on the outcome of this game.

Chris vs. Cam? Or Chris vs. Quincy?

One small mystery leading up to the game is who the Bison's starting quarterback will be. After NDSU's struggle passing the ball with Patterson at QB, combined with Cam Miller's fine performances against Missouri State and Indiana State, smart money would be on Miller.

But the fact it's somewhat up in the air might be telling from a Bison perspective. Since Trey Lance left after playing NDSU's one game in the fall of 2020, the Bison have had a hard time finding consistency at quarterback. Zeb Noland was benched in favor of Miller, then a true freshman, near the end of the spring season. Patterson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, won the job this fall and showed promise before stagnating.

Patterson was injured against Missouri State, but stayed in the game for another quarter before being replaced by Miller.

Since becoming the regular QB over the last five quarters, Miller looks like a much more comfortable and confident signal-caller than he was in the spring. The Bison's passing game has improved and their running game went off for 292 yards against Indiana State after being cooped up for a few weeks.

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South Dakota State quarterback Chris Oladokun has thrown 16 touchdown passes with three interceptions through eight starts heading into Saturday's game against North Dakota State in Brookings, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia Sports Media
Richard Carlson

But that was Indiana State. This is SDSU, a much better defensive team. Can Miller — or, perhaps, Patterson — keep up the pace against the Jacks?

Oladokun, meanwhile, has been mostly excellent for the Jackrabbits. A transfer who had played at two other schools — and had committed to a third before de-committing and going to Brookings — the senior has been what SDSU needed after losing outstanding youngster Mark Gronowski to a knee injury suffered in the spring title game against Sam Houston.

"He's played above our expectations in a number of games," Stiegelmeier said.

Oladokun is 130 of 211 (61.6%) for 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. But Oladokun threw only one TD pass in each of SDSU's two losses, one to Southern Illinois and one to Northern Iowa.

And after a glorious performance in a season opening victory at Colorado State, Oladokun has sometimes shown a tendency to force things in Missouri Valley Football Conference games.

But he is mobile, elusive and has a big arm. If Oladokun is "on," he will be a formidable force combined with the running of Strong.

"I love his leadership. I love his comfort level in the offense in terms of knowledge and where he fits in having really not knowing anybody in June when he got here," Stiegelmeier said. "I think he can make all the throws. I think he throws the deep ball as well as anybody in the last 10 years at South Dakota State."

Strength vs. strength

Let's finish with the obvious point (or another obvious point, if you wish).

SDSU has the statistically best offense in the MVFC and one of the best in FCS. NDSU has the statistically best defense in the conference and one of the best in the country.

The Bison are No. 1 in scoring defense in FCS. The Jackrabbits are No. 3 in scoring offense in FCS.

Say it all together now: SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE.

For whatever you thought of the spring season, one thing that stood out was how SDSU's offensive line was able to handle NDSU's defensive line late in the game. The Jackrabbits rushed for 305 yards and put up 454 yards of total offense, numbers SDSU just hasn't put up against the Bison in previous games.

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North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller sprints for a 13-yard touchdown against South Dakota State on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at the Fargodome. David Samson / The Forum

One statistic that stands out from that game: SDSU had the ball for 10:20 of the fourth quarter, compared to 4:40 for NDSU. The Jackrabbits wore down the Bison defense in the fourth quarter, beginning with a 16-play drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters. That's something that historically the Bison have done to the Jackrabbits.

If the Jackrabbits can physically handle the Bison up front — SDSU believes it has finally matched the Bison in size, physicality and depth along both lines of scrimmage — it'll be a long day for NDSU.

In its seven victories against the Bison since the schools began Division I competition in 2004, SDSU averages 189 rushing yards. In its 14 losses, the Jacks average 85.7.

In its last five games against NDSU, in which SDSU is 2-3, the Jacks have averaged 199.8 yards per game after being stifled through the early years of the Bison dynasty.

On the flip side, can NDSU establish its patented running game against a stout SDSU defensive front and excellent linebacker Logan Backhaus?

An interesting nugget unearthed by Bison radio voice Jeff Culhane this week is that the key rushing number for NDSU against the Jacks is 170.

In the 21 games (both regular season and postseason) that NDSU and SDSU have played in the Division I era the Bison are 13-0 when they rush for more than 170 against the Jacks. They are 1-7 when they run for less than 170.

In the spring game, NDSU rushed for 97 yards. That was the first time SDSU held NDSU under 100 yards in the FCS era.

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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