McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-South Dakota game
Other than an upset victory in 2015, playing the Bison has been ugly for the Coyotes. In NDSU's seven victories over USD since 2012 when the Coyotes joined the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Bison have won by an average score of 47-13.
FARGO — North Dakota State and South Dakota were once the two best NCAA Division II football programs in the country. Of course, that was almost four decades ago.
And completely irrelevant to today.
But, for the record, the Bison and Coyotes played in the 1985 Division II playoff semifinals (NDSU won and went on to win the national title) and the 1986 national championship game (NDSU won).
Since the programs again started playing annually when the Coyotes eventually moved to the Football Championship Subdivision several years after NDSU, there's not been much competitiveness in NDSU-USD games.
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Save one year. That was 2015, when the Coyotes of coach Joe Glenn upset the No. 1-ranked and four-time defending national champion Bison 24-21 at the Fargodome on a walk-off field goal by Miles Bergner. (NDSU went on to win the national championship, USD finished 5-6).
Other than that, it's been ugly for the Coyotes. In NDSU's seven victories over USD since 2012 when the Coyotes joined the Missouri Valley Football Conference the Bison have won by an average score of 47-13.
The last three times the teams have met (a scheduled contest during the spring FCS was cancelled because NDSU had positive COVID tests) were 49-14 (2017 in Fargo), 59-14 (2018 in Vermillion) and 49-14 (2019 in Fargo).
This Saturday's game has a different outlook, at least on paper. The Bison (9-1) opened as just 11.5-point favorites and USD (7-3) has a chance to win a share of the conference title by beating NDSU. The Coyotes are coming off a miraculous victory over archrival South Dakota State, using a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired to beat the Jackrabbits 23-20 at the DakotaDome.
Is USD a team of destiny, given the ending of that game?
Or was it a mirage and will the Bison, with a possible top-two seed and homefield advantage through the playoff semifinals riding on a victory, maintain their dominance?
Most important, who will win the NDSU Team Makers 50/50 raffle that could lead to a lucky fan being a record $50,000 richer?
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's game, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m.:
Recovering from the 'Vermiracle'
Carson Camp's 57-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Webb as time expired last Saturday gave South Dakota a win over SDSU and catapulted the Coyotes into the national spotlight. The play was named ESPN SportsCenter's top play of the day and social media exploded with tweets, retweets, mentions and likes of the miracle in Vermillion.
It was, by far, the most attention South Dakota football has received.
So how do the Coyotes handle it?
Whether they are emotionally locked in from the start could be important when they play the Bison in the Fargodome. If NDSU can get off to a quick start, get the fans going on Senior Day and make USD play catch-up, it could be a long day for the Coyotes.
USD coach Bob Nielson said his team will be helped by the importance of the game. The Coyotes could clinch a share of their first MVFC title with a win, a huge accomplishment for a program historically near the bottom of the league (the 'Yotes were picked to finish eighth in the 11-team conference in the preseason poll).
"That's why it's easy to move beyond it, because we have a big game with a tremendous amount of meaning this week," Nielson said. "We talked three weeks ago that we still had the ability to win a conference championship, specifically in our control, but it was going to take winning the last three games. We've been able to find ways to win the first two, so now step No. 3 is in front of us and it's certainly the biggest test of all."
Trying to beat an engaged Bison team in Fargo is going to be difficult anyway, so any sort of head-in-the-clouds stuff from USD and the game could get out of hand quickly.
Upward trending line
NDSU's vaunted offensive line has been up and down for the first 10 games.
During a walloping of Towson in Week 3 in which the Bison rushed for 339 yards it looked like NDSU's blockers were all-world, but the MVFC season has been less consistent.
Last week against Youngstown State, NDSU ran for 454 yards and the Bison offensive line thoroughly dominated. Yes, it was a bad Youngstown defense, but the way the big guys up front got off the ball and buried Penguins defenders was something not seen for awhile.
After the game, Bison head coach Matt Entz said the offensive line relaxed and had fun again — implying that it hadn't done that in previous games. Entz said with the Bison program built on the offensive line and defense, perhaps some players were feeling that weight.
Entz said in his Monday press conference that Bison coaches simplified the offense. It was clear the Bison ran more power against the Penguins and had quarterback Cam Miller under center more than previous starting quarterback Quincy Patterson II.
"I think our coaches did a great job of saying, 'Hey let's just be great at what we do instead of trying to be too cute,'" Entz said.
Asked to be more specific, Entz said: "We backed some things off. Kind of went back to our install a little bit. If it's good enough to put in on days one through five of fall camp, it should be good enough to run in games. We kind of got back to where we were a little bit.
"I think that group does put a lot of pressure on themselves because this is NDSU. They all want to play at the highest level possible, they all want to be the best versions of themselves. I think we just had a good week of practice. We talked about what was important and left it at that."
If the Bison blockers have found their footing and can remain consistent, and NDSU coaches continue to push the right buttons, good luck to the Coyotes. And, frankly, the rest of FCS as the playoffs near.
"I've said it a million times and I'll keep saying it. The offensive line group and defense are what this program is built on," Entz said. "The better those kids up front play, the better we can continue to recruit the right bodies into that room, we'll continue to have success."
Ugly Coyote defense no longer
In the four games between NDSU and USD since the Coyotes' upset victory in 2015, the Bison have rushed for 369, 340, 384 and 419 yards in lopsided victories.
This year, the Coyotes believe they have what it takes to slow NDSU's rushing game. The Coyotes rush defense is ranked 12th in FCS allowing 97.4 rushing yards per game.
"It's certainly the best we've played against the run since I've been here," said Nielson, now in his sixth season.
The difference might not necessarily be personnel, but perhaps scheme.
Nielson said USD made a commitment this fall to stopping power running teams, given the Valley's two best teams in NDSU and SDSU rely so heavily on a punishing ground attack.
"We spent a good bit of time this fall working on our defensive package against heavy personnel formations," Nielson said. "We felt like that was an area we had to get better at because of the teams in this league and what they do."
NDSU is ranked No. 2 in rushing offense at 268.7 yards per game, but has struggled against some of the better run defenses in the MVFC.
Two of USD's better players are linebackers Jack Cochrane (No. 39) and Brock Mogensen (No. 49). Cochrane has 83 tackles, including 45 unassisted, and Mogensen has 68.
Two other players mentioned by Entz were safety Elijah Reed (No. 4) and defensive end Jacob Matthew (No. 33).
"They continue to improve defensively," Entz said.
The Coyotes rank second in the league in scoring defense (17.4 points allowed per game) and second in sacks (30).
"They got themselves believing and I know that's a word coach Nielson hangs on," Entz said. "If you get a team to believe, they think they can win every game and right now this team thinks it can."
TaMerik to the rescue
Running back TaMerik Williams will likely play a big role against USD.
Williams came to NDSU and immediately was met with high expectations from media and fans. He's big, he's fast and he transferred from FBS Southern Methodist.
Williams was expected to replace Adam Cofield, who left NDSU to transfer to FBS Western Kentucky, as the Bison's big-bodied back. The tough yards guy. The rough and tumble bruiser.
What's not to like?
Instead, Williams didn't play much in the first half of early games and didn't get many carries when he did play in the second half. His two biggest games were blowout victories against Valparaiso (eight carries, 72 yards) and Towson (six carries, 79 yards).
Williams did not play at North Dakota and had just two carries the next week against Northern Iowa.
Last week's victory at Youngstown State was Williams' breakout game. With starter Dom Gonnella out with an injury and the Bison recommitted to their power running attack, Williams got his first start and had a season-high 18 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
It was as impressive as a running back looked this season for the Bison.
Entz said Williams' sparse workload was because he wasn't acclimated to the NDSU offense.
"Every week he continues to get better and better just because of familiarity with our program. When he showed up in June, he was no different than the freshmen. He was no different than Barika Kpeenu (a freshman from West Fargo Sheyenne) in knowing what we were doing offensively," Entz said. "He and (running backs) Coach (Joe) Beschorner have done a tremendous job of getting that information into TaMerik and he's been able to utilize and take advantage of it. Now you're starting to see all the reps of practice starting to pay off."
Williams is 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and that showed against the Penguins. He broke numerous tackles to gain extra yardage.
Williams complements smaller backs like Kobe Johnson and Jalen Bussey, and adds an element of power like fullback Hunter Luepke.
Despite limited duty, Williams is NDSU's leading rusher with 433 yards on 62 carries.
"If there's a reason we brought him here, it's because we needed a different style back," Entz said.
Watching the scoreboard
Saturday is the last day of the regular season in the FCS and Bison fans will be paying attention to Missoula, Mont., because of playoff implications.
The FCS playoff committee will announce the 2021 field Sunday morning.
Missoula is where Montana is hosting archrival Montana State in the "Brawl of the Wild" game. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Central, 90 minutes before the start of the NDSU-USD game.
That game matters to NDSU because it's assumed the playoff committee will be looking at four teams as possible top-four seeds — Sam Houston, Montana State, NDSU and James Madison. How they land in the shuffle is the story.
Most FCS observers figure defending national champion Sam Houston (9-0 and heavily favored to beat Abilene Christian on Saturday) will be the No. 1 playoff seed. That leaves the No. 2 seed — and the homefield advantage until Frisco, Texas, that goes with it — up to the Bobcats, Bison and Dukes.
Montana State is 9-1 and unbeaten against FCS competition, its only loss coming to FBS Wyoming. If the Bobcats win, they will have the inside track on getting the second seed.
But a Montana win would swing the door wide open for the Bison to get the second seed if they beat South Dakota.
James Madison is 9-1 and expected to defeat Towson, and could still be in line for a second seed with a Montana State loss, but the Dukes only loss came to Villanova. The Wildcats could win the Colonial Athletic Association's automatic bid with a victory over Delaware on Saturday and that might be enough to bump JMU down the list.
If the Bison beat USD, they would finish 10-1 and win the FCS's best conference outright. NDSU's only loss would be by eight points on the road to highly ranked South Dakota State. That is a strong resume to earn the No. 2 seed if Montana State loses to Montana.
Why does this matter?
NDSU is 28-1 in FCS playoff games at the Fargodome since 2010. FCS teams do not want the road to Frisco to go through Fargo again. The Bison would prefer it, of course. That's why so many eyes will be on the scoreboard Saturday afternoon.