Save for an anticlimactic game with Eastern Washington in the season’s second week, the North Dakota State Bison football team has been untested this season. Games against Mississippi Valley State and Robert Morris, cellar dwellers of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Northeast Conference, bookended the Bison’s 40-13 romp of the Eagles. The Herd also opened conference play against the two weakest opponents on their conference schedule.
That will all change this Saturday when the Bison face off against Youngstown State. The game against the Penguins begins a stretch of six games against five opponents currently ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll Top 25.
The Bison have put up gaudy numbers against inferior opponents throughout the year. NDSU hung 77 points on the Delta Devils and then 56 on the Colonials. Against these opponents, the Bison have averaged 318.6 yards rushing per game and totaled 23 rushing touchdowns. The weak schedule tilts the scales in favor of the Bison, who currently top the FCS in points per game, total yards per game and rushing yards per game.
To the shock of many, Youngstown State reached the FCS championship game last season, bringing an end to a 10-year playoff drought. The Penguins return eight offensive starters from last year’s 12-4 squad.
Highlighting the returning starters is running back Tevin McCaster. The junior has tallied 536 yards rushing and 8 rushing touchdowns thus far. His 107.2 yards rushing per game ranks ninth in the FCS and second in the Missouri Valley, behind only Lance Dunn.
“(He’s) difficult to bring down one on one, difficult to bring down on first contact,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman said of McCaster on Monday. “You have to be really good tacklers in the hole or he’s going to carry you three, four, five yards. He’s got really good speed. He’s a good one cut vertical runner.”
Klieman believes that for NDSU to have success in slowing down McCaster, his defense will need to improve on their performance against LeMonte Booker of Indiana State. “We have to tackle better than we did last Saturday,” the head coach noted. “If we don’t tackle McCaster better than we did on Saturday, he’s going to have a really big day against us.”
Complimenting McCaster has been freshman Christian Turner. Turner’s abilities as a receiver as well as a tailback have been an imposition to opposing defenses. The former two-time Ohio Division II state champion has racked up 316 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield and 206 yards receiving and two touchdown catches. His 5.4 yards per carry lead the team.
Another returning starter for the Penguins is quarterback Hunter Wells. Wells took the reigns for YSU midway through 2016 and posted a 7-2 record as a starter. Wells, however, suffered a dislocation of his throwing shoulder in the Penguins’ week two triumph over Robert Morris, leading to sophomore Nathan Mays taking over the starting role.
Wells threw four passes against South Dakota State two weeks later, but it has been Mays who has seen the rest of the action. Mays has completed 64.4 percent of his passes and connected on one touchdown. The signal caller has also been a threat with his legs, recording 256 yards rushing and 4 rushing touchdowns. It is still uncertain who will be lining up under center on Saturday for the Penguins.
Youngstown State favors their running game and controlling the time of possession, an area which Klieman thinks will be critical to a victory on Saturday.
“They want to hang on to the football and so do we,” Klieman said. “We have to be able to create some negative plays so they’re not in second-and-4, second-and-5, which they’ve been in an awful lot.”
The strength of the Penguins lies in their defense, a unit which is the class of both the Missouri Valley and the FCS.
“They’re really good on defense at all positions,” Klieman stated. “They play really fast; they know what they’re doing; they have their adjustments. There’s not a weakness on their defense.”
The Penguins defense lost four starters from last season’s title game lineup, including Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, two pass rushers drafted into the NFL. However, the unit is still up to their championship form. YSU ranks ninth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 15 points per game, and 17th in total defense.
Justus Reed, a junior transfer from the University of Florida, has stepped into the defensive end role vacated by Moss and Rivers. Reed has compiled 14 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and a fumble recovery.
Behind Reed, returning linebacker Armand Dellovade has been a playmaker for the Penguins. The junior has recorded 24 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, a sack, and an interception. Dellovade anchors a linebacking corps which returns all three starters from the championship game.
In the secondary, Jalyn Powell has moved from strong safety to free safety. Powell became a starter in YSU’s run to the championship game last year and has been an invaluable asset for the defense. The senior leads the team with 37 tackles and has added 4 pass breakups.
While NDSU has been able to dominate weaker opponents, a daunting challenge awaits them, and Klieman has ensured his players are ready.
“We played there two years ago, and it was as physical a game as we had played,” he said. “They’re really good up front on both sides of the ball, and they have really good skill. We know the tall order we have this week.”
Saturday’s tilt with Youngstown State gives the Bison an opportunity for a statement win and, more importantly, an opportunity to stay on top of the Missouri Valley.