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Playoffs? How about playing a good game

Craig Bohl said it best after the game. Asked about the big picture of North Dakota State's football season - the ever-shrinking possibility the Bison will reach the Promised Land known as the playoffs - Bohl instead went to the small picture.

Craig Bohl said it best after the game. Asked about the big picture of North Dakota State's football season - the ever-shrinking possibility the Bison will reach the Promised Land known as the playoffs - Bohl instead went to the small picture.

"As a head football coach, I'm looking at a football team that has to improve," Bohl said. "We're not playing well right now."

Such was the mood in the basement of the Fargodome after the Bison's 27-22 loss to Western Illinois. A season that began with such hype and promise is now stuck in neutral - or worse - with a 3-3 record and less-than-dazzling 1-2 mark in the mighty Missouri Valley league.

Margin for error? Gone.

Swagger? Gone.

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Talk of conference titles, home playoff games, national championships? Gone, gone and gone.

Instead the buzz words repeated during five years of Division I transition have been replaced by the sobering reality that the Bison, despite beginning Saturday with a No. 6 national ranking, aren't playing good football.

NDSU, by its high standards, looks pretty average.

It's been more than a month since NDSU crushed poor Central Connecticut State at the dome, and the Bison haven't played a complete game since. Only a second-half meltdown by Southern Illinois last weekend has allowed the Bison to avoid four straight defeats.

Here's a stat on which to chew: NDSU is 3-4 in its last seven games going back to the South Dakota State loss at the end of last season. Two of those victories were over nonconference patsies Austin Peay State and Central Connecticut.

And now a home loss for the first time since 2005.

Title talk should be replaced with a much more modest goal: Playing a good game.

Next week's contest at eighth-ranked Northern Iowa would be a good place to start.

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"If we don't come with our 'A' game every single weekend, we're going to lose," Bison senior linebacker Mike Maresh said. "We've put some good quarters together, some halves, but to win in this conference you have to put four quarters together."

Western Illinois was the better team Saturday, but NDSU was again victimized by its own hand. And feet.

A whiffed blocking assignment gave Western Illinois a blocked punt and touchdown. Shawn Bibeau pulled an extra-point kick wide. A blown coverage left the middle of the Bison defense wide open and Leathernecks tight end Matt Warner turned it into a 75-yard catch and run. Nick Mertens looks like he's been told to, no matter what, not make a mistake. And penalties. Always penalties.

There are just too many mistakes. It's become the trend, not the exception.

"Are we way off? No," Bohl said. "Tonight we should have played better. We should have protected our home turf. Penalties, blocked punts, things like that. You don't win games. You flat don't win games."

Those are words normally attributed to middle-of-the-pack teams, not ones with championship aspirations.

"I don't think we've seen the best Bison football team," wide receiver Kole Heckendorf said.

That version better show up quick, because time is running out. Winning at Cedar Falls next weekend is now a necessity, not a luxury. Four-loss teams don't often make the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

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"It's a battle every week. We've learned that the hard way," Western Illinois acting head coach Mark Hendrickson said. "We've had some great teams that didn't end up with good seasons. That can happen very quickly in the Missouri Valley Conference."

It's a lesson the Bison are living. Not that NDSU can be considered a great team. Not the way Bohl's team has played in the last month. That'll have to change drastically if the Bison hope to reach their towering ambitions.

Forum sports columnist Mike McFeely can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com . McFeely's blog can be found at www.areavoices.com

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