North Dakota State football head coach Chris Klieman knows what playing at Western Illinois is like. He was an assistant coach there for three years in the 1990s.
It’s the Leathernecks’ homecoming, and the three-time FCS champion Bison will be in Macomb, Ill., so Hanson Field is going to be rocking.
“It’s a neat place,” Klieman said. “They’re going to have an unbelievable crowd.”
NDSU (4-0) will face UWI at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Bison’s first Missouri Valley Football Conference game of the season.
“We’re going into eight tough football games,” Klieman said. “If you don’t play your A game, you’re going to get knocked off. Our guys see what the Valley has done … If you go on the road in this league, you’re going to have adversity.”
UWI is led by sophomore quarterback Trenton Norvell, who has completed 60 percent of his throws and seven touchdown passes.
Klieman said the Leathernecks (2-3, 0-1 MVFC) run a fast-paced offense, which is hard to simulate in practice when the scout teams don’t know the playbook.
“Getting lined up is the biggest challenge and not getting too complicated,” Klieman said. “They’re going to go as fast as they can within reason. If they get a good play, they’re getting right back on that ball and coming quickly. They catch some people not ready to play.”
The Bison are coming off of a bye week, which has given them a chance to work on some weaknesses. Klieman said different facets of their special teams will be a point of emphasis this week in practice.
“It gives our kids a chance to get away from football for a few days, refresh themselves, get their bodies healed up from some of the knicks,” Klieman said. “(But if you) flip it, sometimes you can say that if you’re on a run, you don’t want a bye week.”
Senior tight end Kevin Vaadeland said he’s had to work with many of the younger offensive players, especially during the bye week. He said the new players are picking up the playbook and a feel for a new level of football faster than he did when he was a freshman.
But in his sixth year with NDSU, he has worked things out.
“Taking so many reps over the years, I can see the defense and understand what they’re doing,” Vaadeland said. “I can work the leverage and see where all of the holes are. That gets me open a lot.”
While Vaadeland leads the team with 14 receptions, he said the most important aspect to his game is blocking for the run game.
“With our offense, we get into heavy personnel so we can grind the game out at the end,” Vaadeland said. “That way I can sneak out and catch a few passes.”
The NDSU running game is led by John Crockett, who has 485 yards and six TDs on the ground this season. But younger running backs like King Frazier and Chase Morlock have gotten more involved, including on a full house formation which features all three backs.
“I like all three backs,” Klieman said. “All three of them have a real spot, and you saw that against Montana getting all three of them in the game.”
Crockett said UIW, which has allowed 128.4 rushing yards per game, has limited plenty of other skill players.
“They’ve stopped a lot of good backs in the nation,” Crockett said. “It’s going to be real interesting to see them go against what we run here, because they run a similar defense to us. It’s going to be real interesting playing those guys.”
Vaadeland said the offense doesn’t need to win the game for NDSU, but it needs to improve with less penalties. The Bison have accrued 32 fouls for 257 yards.
But Crockett said their problems close to the endzone are far simpler.
“It’s a real easy fix: score,” Crockett said. “We’ve had some opportunities when we drive down the whole field.”
Limiting the Leathernecks’ offense will be key in sealing up momentum in playing MVFC teams, Klieman said.
“We still have to play really good football if we’re going to win this game as well as any other game in our league,” he said.