McFeely: The Air Raid, or at least NDSU's version of it, invades the Fargodome
Bison throw 31 passes in victory over Illinois State, diversifying offense out of necessity
FARGO — Is Fullback U turning into Air Entz?
Is the Air Raid the new A-Gap Power?
Is Cam Miller's right arm packed in ice, tender from an afternoon of slinging the rock around the Fargodome like it was his backyard?
Are dogs and cats living together?
Check the stat line after North Dakota State's 24-7 victory over Illinois State on Saturday and you might think so. Bison quarterbacks threw 31 passes targeted for 10 different receivers and it wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter that NDSU had more rushing attempts than passing attempts.
The football team that built a dynasty grinding opposing defenses to fine dust with brute force is going all Big Sky, apparently.
Miller finished 20 of 30 for 174 yards and a touchdown. It's the third straight game Miller's thrown more than 20 passes and the second consecutive game he matched or broke his record for attempts in a game.
Did the junior ever, in his wildest Solon, Iowa, dreams, believe he'd throw 30 passes in the same game while donning a green and yellow uniform?
"Absolutely not," Miller said.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, not with the Bison sporting the best offensive line in the Football Championship Subdivision and a running back roster filled with talented veterans like Hunter Luepke, Kobe Johnson, Dom Gonnella and TaMerik Williams. NDSU's been known to run its quarterbacks, too.
This was supposed to be another season of grounding and pounding all the way to Frisco, Texas.
But, funny, other teams have it figured that way, too. And so out of necessity Miller and the Bison offense is throwing a little more the last few games as opponents like Illinois State focus on stopping the run.
Matt Entz, the Bison head coach, denies being the next Mike Leach, the quirky and pass-happy Mississippi State coach.
"I don't have a pirate in my office, if that's what you're asking. But I would put a big Darth Vader up there if somebody asked me," he said. "But, no, it's just what they were doing. You saw it. They pressured every snap, they were committing eight to the run game. A lot of them were hitches and bubbles, easy access throws that just turned into a perimeter run game for us."
Indeed, nine different Bison had catches, including five wide receivers. Miller would read the defense, see what Illinois State was offering and then call a run or pass depending on what he saw.
"Really it's all based on space and leverage," said Miller, who has free rein to change plays at the line of scrimmage. "So when I get out there and I think we have space on the outside better than the inside, then I'm going to take the outside and throw it to the receiver."
With Christian Watson gone to the NFL and veteran Phoenix Sproles gone to the transfer portal, it's opened opportunities for Braylon Henderson and Zach Mathis to thrive in the suddenly pass-happy system. Henderson had a career high four catches against the Redbirds and was targeted six times. He did a nice job coming back for a deep ball Miller slightly underthrew, outjostling and ISU defender for a 40-yard catch.
Mathis had four more catches and has compiled a team-leading 20 this season. It won't make anybody forget Watson, but Miller is spreading the happiness among receivers, running backs, fullbacks and tight ends.
"We need to be able to use our weapons," Entz said. "We have a deep and talented wide receiver room. I don't think anybody is going to deny that."
Miller — while having the misfortune of trying to follow quarterbacks like Trey Lance, Easton Stick, Carson Wentz and Brock Jensen in Bison lore — is putting together a statistically spectacular season. Over the past four games, Miller is completing 73.2% of his throws with four TDs and zero interceptions. He's still thrown just one pick this season, long ago at South Dakota.
He's not as dynamic as Lance or Stick, of course. But he doesn't need to be for this Bison team to win. We saw that last season during NDSU's playoff run to a national championship.
"I mean, what were we? Almost 66% completion again," Entz said. "Cam continues to do a great job of understanding the game plan and being effective."
Thirty passes from Miller. One from backup Cole Payton. At NDSU. On purpose and everything.
The world is upside down.
"The quarterback beat us running the ball and throwing it. He had a good game, I thought," Illinois State Brock Spack said. "They've been complaining about him a little bit up here, I guess. We saw him in high school and really liked him. He's a good player."
Likely possessing a sore arm.