FARGO — It’s homecoming to the state of North Dakota, and the school is holding its usual format of festivities like the parade, Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and open house all over the campus.
At Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, the Bison wouldn’t mind hosting their rushing defense again in the 1 p.m. kickoff against Youngstown State.
The Penguins are bringing record running back Jaleel McLaughlin to Fargo. Counting his first two years at Division II Notre Dame College (Ohio), McLaughlin is ninth all-time on the NCAA career rushing list with 6,946 yards.
The Bisons, meanwhile, are 49th in the FCS in run defense, down from their usual position of being a top-10 team in this category. NDSU finished sixth last year, giving up 87.6 yards per game in 15 games.
The Bisons are giving up 138.2 in four games this season.
On the plus side, NDSU was much better against the run last week in the 34-17 win at the University of South Dakota. The Bison outscored the Coyotes 24-0 in the second half and that included holding top SDU guard Travis Theis to 63 yards for the game.
Youngstown and McLaughlin could provide a bigger challenge.
Here are the five things to watch for in the Bison-Penguins game:
mirror mirror on the wall
Toss all the pre-season predictions aside, forget each program’s last decade for a moment and move on to the numbers and the competition this season. The two are similar, starting with the schedules.
NDSU hasn’t had much trouble with non-scholarship Drake University and a North Carolina A&T program that has seen better days. The Bisons had their chances of beating FBS Arizona on the road.
For Youngstown, the Penguins haven’t had much trouble with Dayton without a purse and a Duquesne FCS program that’s far from a top-25 team. The Penguins’ defense had four sacks from the quarterback and forced three turnovers at seventh-ranked FBS Kentucky before falling 31-0.
Both teams like to run the ball. NDSU are averaging 265.5 rushing yards in a game which ranks them fifth in the FCS. Youngstown is averaging 187.3 yards and is ranked 22nd in rushing offense. Both are in the top 10 for turnover margin: the Bison’s ninth with nine turnovers while committing four, and the Penguins’ eighth with eight turnovers and also committing four.
Attack, attack, attack
NDSU head coach Matt Entz mentioned in his press conference earlier this week that the tackle has been a concern for four games.
“It’s an issue right now though, not one we’re ignoring,” Entz said. “We don’t run our feet on contact. It’s like we have too many guys trying to see people in twos (versus) attacking high and running our feet and accelerating. If we can just slow people down, we’ll have someone else there.”
Youngstown State has an elusive runner in McLaughlin, who has a penchant for blowing up defenders. The Penguins also have a mobile second-year quarterback, Demeatric Crenshaw.
“In my opinion, the tackle is a fundamental element and those are things that we have to keep working on,” Entz said.
Bison’s mistakes cost dearly
NDSU’s four turnovers are by no means a major league problem, but the Bison have been guilty of other untimely issues that either blocked drives or, on defense, kept drives alive.
NDSU was called for 22 offenses for 244 yards in four games. A fumble lost inside Arizona’s 10-yard line was costly. False start penalties nullified promising practices in two games.
“There are still far too many intolerable type penalties,” Entz said.
Perhaps they’re amplified in the fact that NDSU’s last two opponents, Arizona and USD, have only been whistled for a single penalty apiece.
Last week’s first half was uncharacteristic of championship-level NDSU football over the past decade with an interception and two lost fumbles, the latter with less than a minute left that led to a touchdown. fast in South Dakota and to a 17-10 halftime lead for the Coyotes.
“The last 2 1/2 minutes of the first half, probably something I’ve never experienced before and probably a lot of people have never experienced before,” Entz said. “But as I tell our team, no one came into this game with the anticipation of fumbling the football. These things are happening, even though I have never seen them happen so quickly.
Looking for the threat of the home run
Look for Youngstown to stack the line of scrimmage to try and keep up Bison’s rushing attack. Not only that, two of NDSU’s receiving leaders who were ranked pre-season as the top two guys may be missing.
Tight end Noah Gindorff will not be available this weekend to treat a lingering injury suffered during the FCS playoffs last year. Senior wide receiver Phoenix Sproles missed the USD game with a hamstring issue and his status is unknown.
Junior Joe Stoffel starts for Gindorff. He responded with two key receptions last week. At some point, the Bisons will have to stretch the field more often than they have in the first three games.
The long ball was unnecessary against Drake and North Carolina A&T. NDSU went to a power game against Arizona. The Bison hit a home run last week when Braylon Henderson got behind the Coyote secondary, but quarterback Cam Miller knocked him down.
Last year in Youngstown, Christian Watson scored on a 71-yard pass from Miller. In the 2019 Penguins game, Watson caught a 69-yard throw from Trey Lance.
Watson is with the Green Bay Packers.
Is it time for Henderson to shine? DJ Hart? Zach Mathis? The Bison would like to find this threat.
‘Ram’ hard on the offensive line
NDSU’s offensive line entered the season with a reputation for being experienced and good. He kept his word.
Running back Hunter Luepke and his powerful style have been the perfect addition to the group, which starts four seniors and a junior up front. Senior left tackle Cody Mauch was the Missouri Valley Offensive Lineman of the Week twice this year.
The Bison are fifth in the FCS in rushing offense with their average of 265.5. This includes 356 yards at USD.
“I thought we ran the ball extremely hard,” Entz said. “I thought we had a lot of yards after contact.”
Senior left guard Nash Jensen didn’t finish the game with a lower leg injury but looks set to play this week. Even if he doesn’t, the Bisons aren’t losing much with junior guard Gray Zabel, or the combination of inserting junior Brandon Westberg to center or guarding or moving center Jalen Sundell to the keep.