When the clock struck zero on the North Dakota State’s 19-17 loss to South Dakota State last season, the Bison had lost more than their unblemished 5-0 record. For the first time since 2009, the Herd had lost their claim to the Dakota Marker trophy.
The Dakota Marker will be on the line for the 14th time in the border states rivalry which dates back to 1903, when North Dakota Agricultural College defeated SDSU by a score of 85-0.
This year’s version of the Aggies, rather, the Bison are hoping the game features less of an offensive show of force. The Jackrabbits boast one of the nation’s top offenses, ranking second in the nation with 44 offensive touchdowns and 10th in yards per game with 465.
Quarterback Taryn Christion has surged in recent weeks after a tumultuous start to the season. Christion has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 709 yards in the past two weeks and has been responsible for nine touchdowns.
Against Western Illinois this past weekend, Christion threw for five scores and recorded 423 yards of offense to guide the Jackrabbits to a 52-24 victory. He earned Missouri Valley Offensive Player of the Week honors for his dominant performance against the Leathernecks.
Christion has leaned on the senior tandem of tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke throughout the season. The two were considered NFL prospects entering the season and will still likely find themselves on a professional roster. However, both have seen their stocks drop due to SDSU’s rocky first half.
Goedert has been one of the conference’s elite receivers. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, the tight end has used his massive frame to reel in 700 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns this season. Goedert’s 17.1 yards per catch is the second highest total in the conference this season among receivers with more than 40 receptions.
Wieneke has tallied 479 receiving yards this season, and his 11 receiving touchdowns are tied for best in the nation.
“They’re really electric, explosive on offense,” head coach Chris Klieman remarked. “They have a lot of really good players. Obviously everybody talks about Wieneke and Goedert. I really am impressed with the quarterback; he’s a great player.”
While Christion has been able to right the ship in recent weeks, he still has struggled against the better defenses in the conference. Christion posted his two lowest completion percentages against Youngstown State and Northern Iowa and will face the conference’s best pass defense this Saturday.
Likewise, NDSU will have their hands full defending the Jackrabbits passing attack. “Getting pressure on the quarterback, I think, is probably the key,” Klieman stated. “If he has time to throw it, they have really talented receivers, tight ends and backs that find ways to get open.”
Klieman hopes that his defense will be able to put Christion and Co. in uncomfortable situations. “Our ability to get after the passer and be better on first and second down (will be vital).”
The head coach acknowledged that doing so is easier said than done. Because the Jackrabbits often use a run-pass option with Christion, sacks against SDSU are few and far between. The Jacks have conceded only eight sacks this season, second best in the conference.
“Christion has the option to run the football or to throw it based on what the defensive look is. When you have that type of offense, you just don’t give up very many sacks,” Klieman explained.
The task of defending Goedert became even more difficult in the fourth quarter of NDSU’s win over Northern Iowa. Emerging star Jabril Cox drew a targeting penalty for his hit on Isaiah Weston late in the contest and will be suspended for the first half against SDSU.
Filling his void at the strongside linebacker position could be Chris Board, whom Klieman indicated could return from injury for the rivalry matchup. If not, Aaron Mercadel was listed below Cox on the depth chart for the Northern Iowa game and could be in line to make his first start as a Bison if Board does not return.
SDSU’s offense has not been limited to the passing game. The Jackrabbits have moved the ball on the ground at a clip of 190.6 yards per game this season.
Leading rusher Brady Mengarelli has carried the ball for 561 yards and six touchdowns this season, and like Goedert, makes the most of his touches. Mengarelli’s 7.2 yards per carry is second in the conference among running backs.
Overall, the plan for NDSU will be to win the time of possession battle. “We have to have a great plan. There’s no secret to the plan,” Klieman indicated. “You try to keep their offense on the sideline, and you try to have your offense out there. That’s the formula to try to slow those guys down.”
The Bison will have to grind out the clock without top running back Lance Dunn. Klieman announced on Monday that Dunn suffered a torn labrum two weeks ago against Western Illinois and will be sidelined for four to six weeks, jeopardizing his possibility of returning this season.
Dunn was able to avoid surgery, but Klieman said it would be “touch and go” as to whether or not the junior could return for a possible playoff game.
The injury to Dunn left Klieman with no choice but to remove true freshman Seth Wilson’s redshirt. Wilson will be the third running back on Saturday, behind Bruce Anderson and Ty Brooks, who returned last Saturday.
Adding to the build up of this year’s Dakota Marker game is the Bison’s quest to return the trophy to Fargo. While the Herd avenged their regular season loss to SDSU by defeating them in the playoffs, the trophy still resides in Brookings.
Klieman, though, has not used revenge as a way of preparing his players. “We don’t talk revenge really. It’s the next game on the schedule. It’s an important game like they all are,” he commented. “Our guys are excited to play South Dakota State just like South Dakota State is excited to play us.”
Though it may not be one of Klieman’s tactics, there is no doubt that revenge will be on everyone’s minds this Saturday.