With the non-conference schedule completed, Saturday will mark the opening of Missouri Valley play for North Dakota State. The Bison kick off conference action against none other than No. 3 South Dakota State with both the Dakota Marker and border bragging rights on the line.
The Bison cruised through their three-game non-conference slate, picking up easy victories against Cal Poly, North Alabama and Delaware. While NDSU’s defense was its normal stingy self, it wasn’t until their 38-10 win over the Blue Hens that the offense came alive.
Meanwhile, the Jackrabbits have gone 2-0 in what can best be described as an enigmatic stretch. SDSU trailed Iowa State by seven points when their contest was cancelled due to thunderstorms. The Jackrabbits then trounced Montana State by a score of 45-14 and massacred Arkansas-Pine Bluff 90-6.
While the resounding win against a 3-1 Bobcats team is impressive, the triumph over UAPB was so gaudy that Jackrabbits head coach John Stiegelmeier apologized afterward.
With only two quarters of play from first-team players, studying Jackrabbits film this season is challenging. Regardless, NDSU head coach Chris Klieman isn’t placing a great deal of emphasis on the Jacks’ 2018 footage.
“Both of us play each other so much, so you have to look back at previous games,” Klieman stated. “It’s pretty limited on what you’re gaining this year. You’re looking at personnel, but for the most part you’re shutting those films off pretty early. … You have to go back on some of your recall from years past.”
Unsurprisingly, SDSU ranks in the top 10 in points scored, passing offense and rushing offense. Over-inflated statistics aside, it’s difficult to gauge this year’s Jackrabbits squad.
Any discussion of SDSU revolves around the losses of Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert, and rightfully so. The tandem accounted for nearly 75 percent of the Jackrabbits’ aerial touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Fortunately for the Jackrabbits, young standout Cade Johnson has been a revelation in the passing game. Johnson earned a nod to the Missouri Valley All-Newcomer team a season ago as an electrifying kick returner.
This year, Johnson is SDSU’s top receiver with 300 receiving yards and six scores. The Papillon, Nebraska native shares a hometown with Bison cornerback Jalen Allison, who he’ll draw in coverage on Saturday.
“(He has) great speed, really good hands and is an electric player,” Klieman said of Johnson. “He’ll be a really tough matchup for us.”
The team has yet to find someone to fill Goedert’s role as a big-bodied pass catcher. Save for two receptions from third-stringer Blake Kunz, Jackrabbit tight ends have not caught a single pass thus far.
Quarterback Taryn Christion remains the centerpiece of SDSU’s high-powered offense. The senior has racked up 651 passing yards in the Jackrabbits’ first two games to go along with nine touchdowns. Perhaps most impressive has been his efficiency — completing 34 of 43 passes, Christion’s completion percentage is dramatically improved over last season’s mark of 58 percent.
“He’s been doing this for a really long time. All the run-pass options that they’re doing, he knows the reads,” Klieman said of Christion. “We have to do a really good job of not giving him an easy pre-snap picture.”
One facet of Christion’s game that has yet to emerge has been his ability to run the football, akin to Bison signal-caller Easton Stick. Buoyed by 500 rushing yards. Christion ranked fourth in the nation in total offense a season ago. However, the rushing proficiency that had him in that stratosphere has yet to manifest itself in 2018. On only nine attempts, Christion has rushed for negative yardage this year.
Where the Jackrabbits have been sloppy this year is in conceding yardage. SDSU has averaged 71 penalty yards, and 14 of 17 penalties have been whistled against the offense. The mental errors don’t bode well entering the Fargodome against a Bison squad that punishes opponents’ miscues.
The Jackrabbits group of returning linebackers headlines their defense. Logan Backhaus, Dalton Cox and Christian Rozeboom all return to the linebacking corps. Rozeboom earned Second Team All-America honors with 127 tackles last season. The junior recorded 10 or more tackles in seven different games a year ago.
The difficulty for SDSU’s defense will be finding a way to slow down the Bison’s big-play offense. The Herd finally seemed to be firing on all cylinders in their win over Delaware, a concerning sign for opposing defenses.
While NDSU’s first two wins were largely predicated on huge performances on the ground, Stick and the passing attack took off against the Blue Hens. Stick has found excellent rapport with wide receiver Dallas Freeman, who has displayed explosive potential on broken plays. As is always the case, running backs Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn and Ty Brooks are liable to race away at any moment.
The battle between Stick and Christion figures to be the key matchup, especially in light of last year’s meeting between these two teams. Stick tossed three interceptions against the Jacks, which ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in the 33-21 loss. On Monday, Klieman was quick to point out that in the following week against South Dakota, Stick went 11 for 12 with 307 passing yards.
SDSU holds an advantage over the Bison in that they’ve not only played one less game, but they also had their bye week this past week. Conversely, while the Jackrabbits are fresher, NDSU has been able to give key players extended rest with large leads.
This season’s meeting between both sides figures to be one of the more intriguing matchups in recent memory. With neither side challenged yet, it’s unclear how the two will look in a four-quarter game. One theme that always holds true in Dakota Marker games though has been to expect fireworks. More of the same will be in the cards come Saturday.