Season analysis: Shedding the excuses of the spring crucial to Bison title in the fall
Accountability, ground game and stingy defense led to a ninth championship.
FARGO — The drop-down menu on North Dakota State’s football website will say 2020 when clicking through the list of seasons. The reality is nine of the 10 games were played in 2021 and that just scratched the surface of the reality of what really happened.
The 2020 season will go down as a 7-3 record, which wasn’t the 3-8 season of 2009 or the 2-8 year of 2002. It wasn’t that dreadful.
But it certainly wasn’t up to snuff.
Noticeably missing was a quarterback with NFL potential that the Bison enjoyed under center since 2011. But it wasn’t so much what went on in the huddle or between the lines, but more of what went on between the ears. The Bison mentality of eight previous FCS national championships was absent.
“They bought back into the accountability piece,” said head coach Matt Entz. “Unfortunately, I feel like the spring season created a log jam of excuses of why kids weren’t getting things done. We have COVID. Quarantine. Isolation. All of those other things; we just needed to get back to doing it the right way and helping young men identify what that looks like.”
That season ended in a quarterfinal loss to Sam Houston, with NDSU having a true freshman quarterback, Cam Miller, in just his second start.
The Bison took some time off after the May 2 loss and got back to business with the usual summer workouts in June and July. August practice started with the usual feel of a season.
In the end, it was the usual trip to Frisco, Texas, ending in a 38-10 win over Montana State for the ninth FCS title in 11 years. NDSU’s return to glory was accomplished in three phases: better mental toughness, a rushing attack that was relentless and a defense that was Mr. Reliable.
A 12-month plan
Entz was having a conversation with Weber State head coach Jay Hill recently on football in general. Hill said Weber put all of its “eggs in one basket in the spring and it didn’t work out,” Entz said, “and thought it hurt us for two seasons.”
Weber was pretty good in the spring, going 5-1, but lost at home to Southern Illinois in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats went 6-5 this season punctuated by a loss at 5-6 Portland State that eliminated them from the playoffs.
What does this have to do with NDSU? It was evident the Bison didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket last spring. They played as many players as they could. The holes of departing players from the fall of 2020 to train for the NFL Draft like Trey Lance and Dillon Radunz were difficult to replace.
Pandemic protocols reduced the Gate City Bank Field at Fargodome attendance to less than half. The Bison couldn’t put that season behind them fast enough.
“I think our ability to continue to get better was impressive with our team,” Entz said. “Half of our kids were first- or second-year members of the program. Half our team had never been to Frisco. But coming to work every day and enjoying one another is a big part of it.”
Grinding on the ground
Consider these numbers: Since a 27-19 loss at South Dakota State on Nov. 6, the Bison averaged 329.3 yards per game on the ground, an average of 6.6 yards per carry. In the four FCS playoff games, they averaged 305 yards on the ground.
NDSU finished as the second-best rushing team in the FCS behind triple-option team Davidson, which ran the ball most of the time against nonscholarship competition.
The Bison ended at 280.7 yards on the ground per game. In the 2020-21 season, they averaged 218.3 yards. A juggled offensive line because of injuries didn’t help and the coaching staff wasn’t eager to put unhealthy players back in the lineup. Grey Zabel and Mason Miller started games on the offensive line as true freshmen. Jake Rock started a game as a redshirt freshman.
“It wasn’t as if we brought in a bunch of new people,” Entz said of the 2021 season. “The team just had a different makeup.”
It did at quarterback. Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson started the first seven games and was lethal in the run game. NDSU, looking for better balance, went back to Miller to close the regular season and the playoff run.
And the transfer portal paid off in the addition of junior running back TaMerik Williams from SMU. He finished as the team’s leading rusher with 773 yards on 123 attempts. Junior Kobe Johnson, who missed four games in the spring with an injury, was second with 671 yards.
Johnson set a school record with the longest TD run from scrimmage with a 97-yarder. He did some damage in the FCS title game, too, with a 76-yard touchdown sprint.
They helped offset injuries to Dominic Gonnella, who started the first half of the regular season at running back, and home-run threat Jalen Bussey. The Bison also had Hunter Luepke in their back pocket.
Luepke was never overused during the season and had only 87 attempts in 15 games. But he was second on the team in touchdowns with eight behind Patterson’s 12. Entz before the title game told an ESPN reporter “we kind of hid him a little bit” during the season.
And the offensive line finished the season with the No. 1 reputation as the best in the FCS.
“It was a year-long process, but we got better and better on the offensive line over the course of the year,” Entz said. “We might have played our best game in the last game of the year.”
The defense rested, but not until after the Montana State game. From the first quarter in the season opener against the University of Albany until the final seconds at Toyota Field, the Bison defenders were as dependable as the team could ask for.
They gave up 11.1 points per game. Opponents averaged only 87.6 yards on the ground and even more impressive — they were 55 of 204 on third down, a conversion rate of just 27%.
“We had to play better defense than we did in the spring,” Entz said.
In four playoff games, the Bison gave up four total touchdowns and an average of 8.5 points per game. The only points they gave up in the fourth quarter came via a 28-yard touchdown pass with less than five minutes remaining against Montana State.
NDSU did it without an NFL-caliber draft pick it had in the past like linebacker Jabril Cox or defensive ends Derrek Tuszka and Kyle Emanuel. Balance was the name of the game.
The defensive line rotated like a hockey team. Middle linebacker Jackson Hankey finished his career as one of the top 10 career tacklers at the school. Outside linebacker Jasir Cox had his best season.
And the defensive backs were steady, rarely surrendering a home-run ball.
Add it all up and the result was 14-1 and another title trophy.