By Joe Scalzo
On Sept. 24, North Dakota State played at Minnesota — a Big Ten team that should have every conceivable advantage over the FCS team in facilities, tradition, budget, talent and fan interest — and won by two touchdowns, 37-24.
This wasn’t a one-year fluke, either. In their last meeting in 2007, the Bison beat Minnesota and came within a last-second blocked field goal of beating the Golden Gophers in 2006.
“If you didn’t know what color the schools were, you would have thought North Dakota State was the Big Ten team,” said Penguins coach Eric Wolford. “And I can say that because I’ve coached in the Big Ten [at Illinois].”
The Bison, ranked No. 1 in both polls, are trying to become first MVFC team since 2007 to start 10-0 and can clinch a share of the league crown with a win over YSU and wrap it up outright by defeating the Penguins this week and Western Illinois next week.
The Bison aren’t the flashiest team in the country but they’re one of the most difficult to beat because of their size (every defensive lineman is at least 6-3 and the offensive line averages 303 pounds), their turnover margin (plus-15, thanks to committing just four turnovers all year) and their home field advantage (NDSU is 10th in the country in attendance, and first in the conference, with an average of 18,237 fans in the notoriously loud Fargodome).
“The biggest thing is, they don’t make mistakes,” YSU junior center Mark Pratt said. “That’s why they’re ranked No. 1. They’re consistent in what they do.”
Sophomore quarterback Brock Jensen leads the Missouri Valley in pass efficiency, completing 148 of 204 passes (72.5 percent) for 1,665 yard, 11 TDs and just one interception.
His main target has been senior Warren Holloway, who has 49 receptions for 657 yards and six TDs.
Running back D.J. McNorton carried 24 times for 100 yards and a TD in last week’s 27-16 win over Indiana State. It was his first 100-yard game of the season and gave him a team-best 577 yards this season.
Defensively, the Bison run a similar defense to Northern Iowa, with a base 4-3 backed by a Cover 2-type shell.
Linebacker Chad Willson leads the team with 48 tackles (including 4.5 for loss), while left end Coulter Boyer has eight tackles for loss, including six sacks.
The Bison surrender just 12.9 points per game — second-best in the nation — and are second in the conference in total defense and rushing defense. They’ve made 56 tackles for loss, compared to 48 for YSU.
“They put tremendous pressure on the quarterback,” said Wolford. “And if you catch [passes], you’re gonna get hit.”
Wolford said their approach most reminds them of the old Nebraska teams under Tom Osborne, albeit without running the option. NDSU tries to control the clock and play good defense, wearing down opponents with their superior size and strength.
It’s a philosophy that’s allowed them to rise to the top of the Missouri Valley Standings in just their fourth year in the conference.
“They’re ranked No. 1,” said Pratt, “so they must be doing something right.”