With an opportunity to win the Missouri Valley championship outright and clinch the Missouri Valley’s automatic qualifier to the FCS playoffs, the North Dakota State Bison will travel to Normal, Ill. to face No. 25 Illinois State.
The Redbirds dropped a crushing defeat at South Dakota State last weekend, missing a field goal in overtime before the Jackrabbits split the uprights on their next drive.
Currently 6-4, ISU has lost three of their last five conference games. The Redbirds will be playing for their slim playoff chances, needing a win to even have a shot at a postseason berth.
Knowing this, head coach Chris Klieman is anticipating a battle on Saturday. “This will be a big game against a team that probably needs to win to make the playoffs. It’ll be a playoff atmosphere,” he stated.
The Redbirds have fallen from No. 7 to their current ranking at the end of the top 25. Illinois State is still a dangerous team though, as Klieman noted. “You watch what those guys did to Youngstown. They went to Youngstown and it was whatever 38, 40-0,” he said. “And then Southern Illinois flipped the script on them.” In short, it’s been an up and down season for Illinois State.
The latest twist for ISU has been a changing of the guard at the quarterback position. Mainstay Jake Kolbe started all nine games prior to last week’s defeat, when he was replaced by Malachi Broadnax. The redshirt freshman completed 10 of 18 passes against SDSU for 102 yards.
Klieman is preparing for both signal callers in advance of Saturday’s tilt. Kolbe fits the mold of a pocket passer, completing 57.2 percent of his attempts this year for 2,025 yards and 12 touchdowns. Broadnax, meanwhile, is a dual threat playmaker akin to Chris Streveler and Taryn Christion. The head coach still anticipates a more run-of-the-mill offense compared to SDSU and USD, though.
“They’re a little bit more conventional. They can go up tempo, but they’ll get in the huddle and things like that. With the quarterback run game, it creates another level that makes it difficult for a defense,” Klieman remarked.
Regardless of the man under center, Illinois State will rely heavily on their run game. The Redbirds have rushed for an average of 183.7 yards per game in Valley play behind James Robinson and Markel Smith.
The sophomore Robinson played in 2016 as a true freshman and continued to excel as ISU’s featured running back. Robinson averages 5.7 yards per carry and has rushed for 837 yards this season, finding the endzone 11 times.
Smith, a transfer from Central Missouri, has run for 586 yards and has also posted more than five yards per carry. In total, Robinson and Smith have formed one of the conference’s most dynamic rushing duos.
Containing the two, and possibly Broadnax if he earns the nod over Kolbe, will be pivotal to the Bison’s success defensively. NDSU has given up 114.4 yards on the ground to conference opponents, and their six rushing touchdowns surrendered lead the Missouri Valley.
Spencer Schnell and Christian Gibbs have joined forces at wide receiver to lead the Redbirds’ passing game. Schnell is ISU’s top receiver, posting 679 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. Gibbs has been dynamic as well, with 557 receiving yards at a clip of 16.9 yards per reception, scoring through the air five time.
Klieman definitively ruled Dom Davis out for the game and tipped Marquise Bridges to replace the heavy hitter. Bridges played his best game of the season last week, and will see increased time alongside Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush in pass defense on Saturday.
Another area of emphasis for the Herd will be in rushing the quarterback. Illinois State has allowed 24 sacks this season, meanwhile NDSU’s pass rush paces the conference in getting to the quarterback. If Kolbe enters the game, the Bison can tee off in third and long situations, as they did against Eli Dunne and Northern Iowa.
The model will be different against Broadnax, but the Bison ought to be equally successful. Even against the mobile Streveler and South Dakota’s quick-hit offense, NDSU was able to get home with only three or four rushers.
When in possession, the emphasis for the Bison will be the run game. Both Ty Brooks and Seth Wilson had breakout performances against USD after the Jackrabbits held NDSU to a season low rushing total. Building on their 340 yards from a week ago will be crucial for the trio and the conference’s best rushing attack.
Klieman hopes that Easton Stick will have his top target back in time for the final regular season game. Darrius Shepherd was injured on the first series against the Coyotes but according to Klieman, “felt pretty good” on Monday. If not, Dimitri Williams will be asked to answer the call after an outstanding game.
“Dimitri really showed up well. I was excited for Dimitri; he’s an electric player, and made plays at critical times,” Klieman commented. “The jet sweep he had near our goal line probably could have been a tackle for loss, and he broke a tackle and got a big gain.”
In the backdrop of the week’s preparation is the chance to secure the program’s third outright Missouri Valley title. “To win it outright is really important to these seniors,” Klieman indicated.
For the Bison to win the title and earn an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, it’s all in their hands.