With their bye week come and gone, the North Dakota State football team enters a stretch of 10 consecutive games, beginning this week against North Alabama. The Lions are in a transitional year, making the move from Division II to the FCS, but haven’t looked the part of a team undergoing change.
As a Division II team, the Lions won three consecutive national titles from 1993-1995, in addition to 17 conference championships. NDSU has squared off with the Lions once, in the 1985 Division II championship, which the Bison won 35-7. Though UNA is without a conference affiliation this season, they’ve still been a force.
UNA currently sits at 2-0 after a pair of impressive performances to open their FCS era. The Lions traveled to Cedar City, Utah and took down the reigning Big Sky champions Southern Utah by a score of 34-30. They then squared off with historic in-state rival Alabama A&M, emerging victorious by a score of 25-20.
This Saturday, however, represents a completely different beast for the Lions. Head coach Chris Willis’ mindset is simple: challenge accepted.
“It’s the next game on our schedule and we’re excited to be going up there 2-0 instead of 0-2,” Willis commented of his team’s mentality.
The head coach also offered high praise for the reigning national champions and No. 1 squad in the nation. “This has to be the best team that any football team from this university has ever faced,” Willis remarked. “We’ve played a lot of good ones, but nobody at their level.”
North Alabama is set to join the Big South in 2019, and the Lions are shaping up to make an immediate impact in the conference. The Lions will face future conference foe Campbell later in the season, a game that will provide a measuring stick for next season. Of the Big South’s six teams, only Kennesaw State is ranked in the top 25, allowing the Lions to contend quickly.
The Lions’ rapid success is in large measure due to the sensational play of quarterback Christian Lopez. A transfer from Mesa Community College, Lopez was unstoppable in UNA’s two wins. Against the Thunderbirds, Lopez tossed three touchdowns and rushed for one more while accounting for 81 percent of the Lions’ offense. He followed that performance up by completing 13 of 18 passes in the following week’s win.
“He’s got a bunch of moxie. He’s a really good football player who’s just scratching the surface I’m sure they feel, of what he can be,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said.
Lopez has relied heavily on receiving duo Dexter Boykin and Jakobi Byrd. The duo has caught all five of UNA’s passing touchdowns and has combined for over 300 receiving yards. A redshirt freshman, Boykin is a large target at 6 feet, 3 inches and 205 pounds, contrasting Byrd’s and No. 3 receiver Andre Little’s smaller frames.
“They have really good skill outside at the receiver position,” Klieman explained.
While the aerial attack has paced UNA, they’ve also demonstrated proficiency in the ground game, averaging 184 rushing yards per game. The Lions primarily utilize two running backs, Damon Cox and Terence Humphrey, but Lopez is a threat to run as well.
Under offensive coordinator Ryan Aplin, UNA deploys a spread offense. “They’ve been fun to watch the first two weeks,” Klieman said. “(They’re) explosive and up-tempo. They want to get as many snaps in as they can.”
Where the Lions have excelled is converting third downs and continuing to move the chains. UNA ranks in the top 15 in the FCS in both first downs and third down conversion rate. At a clip of 50 percent, the Lions convert third downs at a rate equivalent with the likes of Eastern Washington, James Madison and South Dakota State.
Typically, the Bison would have practiced three times during a week off, but NDSU added an extra practice during their bye week. With Cal Poly’s triple option now off the board, the Bison will return to defending a standard offensive scheme for the remainder of the season, which required an extra day to recalibrate.
Having a bye week immediately after their win over Cal Poly effectively makes this a second opener. A key for the Herd will be limiting the mental errors that come with an opening game. The Lions’ high-paced offense poses a potential pitfall unless NDSU is mentally sharp.
“They had Southern Utah really on their heels and not getting lined up, which is what an up-tempo, spread offense is going to want to do,” Klieman said. “We’ll have our hands full handling that tempo.”
Although they are in their inaugural FCS season, the Lions do not lack size in the trenches. UNA’s starting offensive line features three players over 300 pounds, topped by 365-pound center Jay Letatau. While the Lions’ starting defensive line weighs an average of 271.5 pounds, they’ll contend with one of the most physical and disciplined units in the FCS. The Bison’s stout offensive line will test the abilities of UNA’s high-pressure defense.
The Lions’ defense features athleticism across the board. In only two contests, nine players have accounted for 13 tackles for loss to go along with four sacks. Linebacker Christon Taylor has captained a unit that flies around the field. The sophomore has tallied 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks — with the latter matching his output from a season ago.
A key area for any team playing in the raucous Fargodome is remaining disciplined and limiting mental mistakes. The Bison capitalize on opponents’ errors, which has been a tipping point in UNA’s early success. The Lions rank in the bottom third in the nation in penalty yards, racking up a whopping 156 yards on 19 infractions. Playing in Fargo will only serve to magnify these miscues.
One thing that’s certain is the Bison aren’t taking North Alabama lightly. “Two games on the road to start you’re Division I era, you’re catching all of our eyes for sure,” Klieman stated. “Our kids are certainly not going to ‘look ahead,’ so to speak. We have to play really good football.”
North Alabama has accepted the challenge of slaying the FCS’s behemoths. What remains to be seen is if they are up to the task.