North Dakota State football was one trick play and a hypothetical tough overtime period away from losing its first game since the 2012 regular season.
Down 10-3 to Western Illinois in Macomb, Ill., the No. 1-ranked Bison didn’t look like the same team that dominated its way to an undefeated year in 2013. It didn’t even look like the unquestionable best team in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
But that’s life when you’re in the MVFC – every team has a potential to win on Saturdays.
And this Saturday, Southern Illinois will have a chance to knock off the Bison (5-0, 1-0 MVFC) in their Homecoming game in the Fargodome.
“In this league, however, you get (a win), you take it and run,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said. “We’re going to take them for how we get them.”
The Bison’s 29-game win streak could seem like a tight rope getting thinner and less easy to balance on with every step forward. With each game comes the higher probability of a loss.
NDSU might lose a game in these coming weeks, and it probably won’t even be to a highly ranked team.
That’s not because NDSU will overlook anyone, but rather because it’s tough to win when every game on the Bison’s schedule is a test. Even Incarnate Word posed a challenge because ESPN’s “College GameDay” was back in town to provide distraction.
But as of right now, the Bison are focused on that next step rather than what’s at the end of the rope.
“Every week is a new week in the Valley,” Klieman said. “Whether you win a game or lose a game, you’ve got to be able to flush that out and move ahead.”
And as evidenced by the 17-10 win the Bison secured off a John Crockett touchdown late in the fourth quarter against WIU, there are some roadblocks in sight.
“We’re going to have to be able to grind some of those games out,” Klieman said.
Part of that grind is the result of an identity change. The Bison uncharacteristically gave up 253 rushing yards to the Leathernecks and now have to face SIU’s Malcolm Agnew, who is averaging 6 yards a carry.
“There were a couple times we over-pursued on a couple cutback runs,” Klieman said. “We need to fix those problems before we start game planning.”
Where NDSU relies solely on the run, the Bison have a quarterback in Carson Wentz who has strutted astronomical potential. Wentz may have thrown three interceptions but has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,040 yards and four TDs.
It also helps that he is getting more comfortable with the offense, Klieman said.
“Carson Wentz is emerging into a star,” Klieman said. “He’s got unbelievable poise in the pocket. He took some shots on Saturday and delivered some strikes.”
But things haven’t been easier for Wentz without home run-threat Zach Vraa, who has been battling a foot injury since tallying 1,191 receiving yards last year.
His absence may also make things harder for a Bison offense struggling to convert on drives when within 20 yards of the end zone.
The Bison have to score touchdowns to keep up with MVFC offenses.
“The field just flat out shrinks on you (without Vraa),” Klieman said. “It’s something we’ve got to improve on.”
The Salukis offense features senior tight end MyCole Pruitt, who Klieman said has NFL potential. Pruitt has 549 receiving yards, six TD catches in six games.
SIU (5-1, 2-0) also has a 3-4 defense which brings quarterback pressure from anywhere – 13 different Salukis have rounded up a sack this season.
“They’re off to a hot start in the Valley,” Klieman said. “Now they have to go on the road. We hope our home field advantage plays a factor.”
But the last two Bison losses have come to MVFC opponents at the Fargodome. The setting doesn’t really matter. NDSU has to keep plugging ahead to stay undefeated and on top of the rankings.
“We’re going to have to grind it out,” Klieman said. “You are who you are after five games.
“This is the football team we are. We’re going to have to grind things out offensively and defensively.”