Coming off a weekend of rest and recovery, the Bison have hit the ground running again in preparation of Saturday’s tilt with Robert Morris University of the Northeast Conference. The Herd enjoyed a lighter week of activity, as many players had the opportunity to visit home for the first time since late July when camp began. The first weekend off since that time also afforded coaches a break as well, as none reported to the facility.
North Dakota State and Robert Morris have met twice in the past, once in the 2010 playoffs and then again in the 2012 season opener. In their first match-up, the Bison steamrolled the Colonials 43-17 in the first round in RMU’s first and only FCS playoff appearance. The two sides met in Fargo to open the 2012 season, the first game after NDSU won their first FCS title. The Bison predictably dominated the meeting, winning 52-0 to begin the Colonials 4-7 campaign.
This year, however, the Bison will not be able to expect another lopsided scoreline. Head coach Chris Klieman praised Robert Morris in his weekly press conference on Monday.
“They have the right formula,” the fourth year head coach remarked. “They play really good special teams; they play really good defense, and they want to run the football,” he continued.
RMU’s defense has been the strength of the team, allowing only 13.2 points per game, and shut out Virginia Military Institute this past weekend, the team’s first shutout since 2010. While a 30-0 loss to Youngstown State gives the appearance of a weak defensive performance, Klieman noted the loss was deceiving.
“Youngstown did a nice job against them on defense, but Youngstown struggled. It was 13-0 in the fourth quarter,” Klieman pointed out.
While Robert Morris’ secondary has been a focal point, conceding only two touchdowns and 139.3 yards passing per game, the Colonials run defense has struggled. Even though opposing runners have only found the end zone twice against RMU, they have conceded 150 yards rushing per game. The Colonials will need to shore up their run defense this week facing the FCS’s top rushing team. Both Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson posted over 145 yards against Eastern Washington, and the duo will look to duplicate that performance. Adding to the challenge the Colonials front four will face is NDSU’s bulldozing offensive line, the best line RMU has faced this year and one coming off a lights out performance against Eastern Washington.
Klieman believes facing RMU will better prepare the Bison for systems they will see later in conference play.
“It’s a unique system. It’s a lot of three down stuff, and a lot of stunts and blitzes,” Klieman said regarding RMU’s defense. “They’re going to be in a three-down front, which we’re seeing more and more in our league, so that will help us prepare as well,” he added.
Robert Morris will seek to continue their defensive success in turning over the football as well. The Colonials have recorded five fumble recoveries and one interception, but their offense has been unable to capitalize on the extra possessions. RMU has scored only 10 points off their six turnovers.
On the opposite side of the ball, Robert Morris has not been as productive. The Colonials are averaging 75 yards rushing per game. Youngstown State was able to bottle up their top two running backs, Harrison Dreher and Cole Blake. Their receiving corps lacks a defining star, but relies on Tavin Allison as their biggest play-maker. Allison has racked up 158 yards on the season and tallied one score.
Klieman anticipates that the Bison will face a much different offense than Eastern Washington’s.
“Robert Morris is totally the opposite of Eastern Washington,” Klieman stated. “Robert Morris wants to run the football. They’re going to get into, what we would call, more conventional formations with the tight end and the fullback.”
NDSU’s defense will be without linebacker Nick DeLuca for the second consecutive game. DeLuca suffered a meniscus injury in the run up to the Eastern Washington game, and surgery to repair the injury will leave him on the shelf for the foreseeable future.
Klieman will again turn to Dan Marlette to fill DeLuca’s void. “Big week for Dan to get a bunch of reps and continue to get better,” Klieman said.
The Bison’s aforementioned offensive line will again deploy a rotating group of seven to eight different players, as was the case against EWU. “We hope to play a bunch of guys. A couple guys really jumped out at me last week. Cordell Volson, and Karson Schoening, and even (Zach) Kubas have taken most of those reps.”
Klieman also hopes to be able to give extended playing time to other players throughout the team as well. Jabril Cox, Blake Williams, Dom Davis, Josh Hayes and James Hendricks are players Klieman anticipates will not be stars, but will be called upon when conference play comes around.
Furthermore, the head coach wants to see an improvement on special teams. Klieman does not want to rely on players such as DeLuca, Chris Board and Tre Dempsey to do everything, and would like to see others step up to give his defensive stars a rest.
Playing Robert Morris will provide Klieman with a litmus test for Missouri Valley play.
“They just played Youngstown, so it’s good to have someone to compare to,” Klieman commented. “The other game is Dayton, and the other game is VMI. Those are tough games to compare to. When you compare them against Youngstown, now you see how the Valley stacks up.”
“It’s a long grind from here on out,” Klieman said. “I think there is a Valley game this week. It all starts this week.”