Off the heels of a perfect 3-0 record in non-conference play, the North Dakota State Bison football team will host Missouri State in this year’s Homecoming game. The game will be the first of a critical run of contests for the Bison, as it is the opening act of Missouri Valley play.
With an increasing number of opponents breathing down the Bison’s neck hoping to snatch an outright conference title from NDSU for the first time since 2010, it is imperative for the Herd to kick off conference play with a victory.
Of the Missouri Valley’s 10 teams, five are ranked in the top ten, with South Dakota State, Youngstown State, Illinois State and South Dakota making up the four trailing the No. 2 overall Bison. It marks just the third time in the 32-year history of the conference that five teams have ranked in the top ten. The other two instances occurred in two consecutive weeks in 2015.
No. 16 Western Illinois and No. 20 Northern Iowa round out the rest of the seven Missouri Valley teams ranked in the top 25.
The Missouri State Bears are on the outside looking in at the Missouri Valley’s elite. The Bears have posted a 1-3 record this season, their third under head coach Dave Steckel. MSU faced a challenging FBS opponent in their first game, playing the University of Missouri. Mizzou ultimately downed the Bears, but MSU gave the Tigers a run for their money. Their 43 points against Mizzou were the most in program history against an FBS opponent.
Hoping to build off of their promising showing against Mizzou, the Bears took on North Dakota. The Flying Hawks controlled the game and the Bears were shut out in Grand Forks, 34-0. They were able to pick up their first win the following Saturday against Murray State, 28-21, but took another setback when they faced No. 12 Illinois State. The two teams were knotted at six entering halftime, but the Redbirds pulled away with a 28-point third quarter, winning the game 34-9. Now, the Bears will seek to turn the tides of their season.
The Bison will prove to be a tall order for MSU. On the season, the Bears have conceded 519.5 yards per game, which does not bode well considering the Bison have rolled up 555 yards per game through three contests. Allowing 195.5 yards rushing per game, the Bears will have their hands full with the Bison’s running back tandem of Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson.
MSU’s defense will turn to its front seven to do something no other opponent has been able to do this year: stop NDSU’s rushing offense. Colby Isbell has been a veteran force along the defensive line for the Bears. The senior has recorded three tackles for loss, one sack and 10 tackles.
He is supported by linebacker McNeece Egbim, a sophomore from Rowlett, Texas. Egbim emerged as a stopper for MSU in 2016, finishing second on the team in tackles on his way to a spot on the Missouri Valley’s All-Newcomer team. He has followed up that campaign on pace to surpass his tackle numbers from a season ago, already with 25 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
“They’re really active up front,” head coach Chris Klieman said. “I’ve really been impressed with their defensive line as a whole. They really caused us some fits last year because they don’t just stay straight ahead. They’re going to slant, angle and have a lot of line games. We really have to do a great job of communicating.”
Jared Beshore anchors the secondary for the Bears. Beshore has tallied three interceptions, four passes defended, and one pass breakup. The strong safety seeks to key a bounce-back week for his group. Missouri State conceded 312 yards through the air against Illinois State.
On the opposite side of the ball, quarterback Peyton Huslig steers a group that has struggled to put up points outside of their game against Mizzou. MSU is averaging 20 points per game, a distant last in the Missouri Valley. The mark is a far cry from NDSU’s 56 points per game, good for first in the FCS.
Head coach Chris Klieman heaped praise on Huslig, commending his ability to make plays through the air and with his legs. “I really like the quarterback,” Klieman remarked. “I think he’s throwing the ball well. He ran the ball exceptionally well last week against Illinois State.”
Huslig, a sophomore junior college transfer from Garden City Community College, has excelled in his first season with the Bears. The signal caller has a 57.4 percent completion rate to go along with 838 yards passing and four passing touchdowns. Additionally, he has rushed for two scores.
MSU has featured a trio of wide receivers in the passing game this year, with senior Malik Earl being Huslig’s primary target. Earl has reeled in 18 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Earl was a dynamo against Mizzou, catching eight passes for 163 yards, including an 89-yard score in the second quarter.
“Offensively, they’re doing a few unique things,” Klieman stated. “They have a good scheme on offense. Obviously, you can ask Missouri. They have big play capability.”
Speedy tailback Calan Crowder has also been an invaluable weapon for Missouri State, both rushing the ball and returning kicks. Crowder has averaged 7.7 yards per carry and scored three times.
Klieman understands the importance of beginning conference play on a winning note. “We know we’re going to knock each other off some,” the coach said. “We know we’re going to beat each other up, but that’s what makes it so fun. It’s eight one week seasons.”
The first of 2017’s one week seasons begins this Saturday.