Winners of their first game in conference play and the No. 2 ranked team in the FCS, the North Dakota State Bison travel to Terre Haute, Indiana this Saturday to face the Indiana State Sycamores, a team who has yet to win a game.
The winless Sycamores have faced a grueling schedule through four games this season. After a home clash against Eastern Illinois, ISU played three consecutive road games against top 25 opponents. Indiana State played at FBS No. 22 Tennessee, No. 19 Liberty University and No. 8 Illinois State.
Despite their 0-4 record, the Sycamores are a team trending in the right direction. Outside of the Tennessee game, Indiana State has not lost by more than 11 points, including a two-point, last second loss to Eastern Illinois and a one-point loss on a blocked field goal against Liberty.
Head coach Chris Klieman acknowledged on Monday that Indiana State’s record is deceiving. “They’re doing some good things,” he said. “They have some talented guys on both sides of the ball. It’s another Valley game. You’ve got to be ready to play.”
Redshirt freshman Cade Sparks has taken over the starting quarterback position for the Sycamores. The Fontana, California native took over the starting role following the first game from incumbent starter Isaac Harker. Sparks had his best game as a starter against Liberty, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 405 yards and 2 touchdowns.
However, Sparks has struggled in his other three starts. Sparks has completed just 48.8 percent of his passes on the season, and outside of his game against the Flames, he has only thrown for 273 yards.
Harker replaced Sparks in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game at Illinois State, leading Klieman to wonder which quarterback will come out on the field this weekend.
“In the Liberty game, they were really good,” Klieman remarked. “Whichever guy plays, I don’t see the system changing much. I know Jeff Hecklinski is the offensive coordinator, and Jeff’s a really good football coach. Jeff’s going to put his quarterback in a position to be successful.”
Both quarterbacks have relied heavily on senior wide receiver Bob Pugh. Pugh has piled up 371 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns on the season on just 12 receptions. His 30.9 yards per catch is the third highest mark in the FCS and the top in the Missouri Valley. Pugh and fellow senior Jacquet McClendon have provided Sparks and Harker with two reliable veterans. McClendon has become a preferred target, leading the team with 23 receptions, which have gone for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns.
NDSU’s ballhawking secondary, led by captain Tre Dempsey, has intercepted eight passes thus far and will look to take advantage of the matchup against ISU’s revolving door of quarterbacks. The Bison secondary has yet to allow a passing touchdown this season, figuring to compound ISU’s difficulties in the passing game.
The ground game has been a point of weakness for Indiana State. Their 108 yards rushing per game ranks ninth in the Missouri Valley. Workhorse running back LeMonte Booker has rushed for 382 yards and 2 touchdowns to pace the Sycamores. Booker is the only ball carrier for ISU with more than 61 yards rushing. The senior will face the Missouri Valley’s top run defense on Saturday. The Bison have allowed only 50 yards rushing per game and 1.8 yards per carry.
Unfortunately, while the Bison saw linebacker Nick DeLuca return to action last weekend, the Herd’s defense lost another linebacker. Dan Marlette, who Klieman had described as playing “at an All-Conference level,” was lost to a torn ACL.
Defensively, the Sycamores will have their hands full with the Bison’s big play offense. ISU has allowed 32.5 points per game, the second worst in the Missouri Valley ahead of only Missouri State. They will contend with NDSU’s top ranked scoring offense, which, at 51.5 points per game, is the best in the FCS.
An area in which the Sycamores do excel is run defense. Linebackers Jonas Griffith and Katrell Moss have formed a dynamic pairing, anchoring an imposing front seven. Griffith has tallied 37 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, all of which lead the team. Moss, a junior, is not too far behind, with 32 tackles and 4 tackles for loss.
Where the Sycamores have struggled defensively has been in pass defense. Conceding 290.3 yards per game through the air, ISU has been unable to slow down opposing passing attacks. Freshman cornerback Mekhi Ware has been a bright spot for the beleaguered unit, though. Ware has intercepted two passes this year, which leads the team.
Still, Indiana State will have a difficult time slowing down the Herd’s passing offense. Quarterback Easton Stick is coming off of his best game of the season, a masterful shredding of Missouri State. Stick, returning to the site of his first start as a Bison, will look to build off of his performance from last week and continue his connection with R.J. Urzendowski.
“I think he’s one of the best receivers in the league, bottom line,” Klieman asserted. “I really do. The kid does everything for us. I think he’s a really difficult matchup for people.”
With favorable matchups on both sides of the ball, the Bison have every reason to feel confident heading into their first conference game away from the Fargodome.