The Bison are coming off an impressive win on the road this past week as they dismantled the Western Illinois Leathernecks 56-17. Due to the high winds that impacted much of the Midwest, the Bison abandoned the passing game and leaned on their rushing attack that ran for a season-high 453 yards and seven touchdowns. As the regular season winds down, the Bison hit the road once again to Carbondale, Ill. to take on the Southern Illinois Salukis who sit just one game behind the Bison in the conference standings at 4-2.
“(Southern Illinois Head Coach) Nick Hill does a really good job down there,” Bison coach Matt Entz stated. “With them having a bye week I anticipate there’ll be some things that will either be new or things that they have not run very often this year that we’re going to have to be prepared for.”
The Bison have not played in Carbondale since the spring season of 2021 when the Salukis crushed the Bison 38-14. However, the Bison got revenge in the 2nd round of the playoffs last season with a 38-7 win behind a 389-yard rushing performance from a number of ballcarriers. This year’s Saluki run defense looks much improved as they rank 9th in the country. That much-improved run defense is set to square off against a Bison team that, as aforementioned, rushed for over 450 yards last week against Western Illinois.
“They do a nice job,” Entz said of the Saluki defense. “(They run a) 4-2-5. They know what they’re doing. They’re not afraid to bring an extra piece, single-dog or even bringing six and playing cover one behind or bringing five and playing cover one or even a little bit of (cover) zero at different times.”
On the flip side of the ball, the Saluki offense is led by junior quarterback Nic Baker, who in his last game against Northern Iowa passed for 485 yards and three touchdowns. With senior receivers Avante and D’Ante’ Cox as Baker’s favorite targets, the Saluki’s offense presents a tough matchup for a much improved Bison defense.
“I think he’s very comfortable in the pocket,” Entz said of Baker. “Where he becomes really dangerous and he’s dangerous in all aspects of their offense but what I’ve noticed is his ability to scramble through the A and B gap and then get rid of the football before he crosses the line of scrimmage. That’s tough on defenses because all of a sudden you see a guy who you think is leaving the pocket, but he hasn’t left the pocket he’s still eligible to throw it.”
While Baker has not run for a large number of yards this season, he is very elusive in the pocket as Entz mentioned. Aside from his ability to step up in the pocket, Baker also has the ability to complete passes from many different arm angles.
“If there’s a guy in his face he’ll underhand it, he’ll throw it sidearm, he’ll throw it over the top,” Entz said describing Baker. “Has that competitive edge to him and he’s been a winner going all the way back to high school days. I anticipate he’s going to be very well prepared this week.”
As for the Bison offense, they have shown great versatility in the last two weeks. After attempting over 30 passes against Illinois State, quarterbacks Cam Miller and Cole Payton attempted only five passes last Saturday, the fewest by a North Dakota State team since 2017. While the lack of passing may have been due to the swirling winds and cool temperatures that all of us Midwesterners love so dearly, for the Bison to be able to successfully throw the ball 30 times one game and run 50 times the next sets a unique challenge to each of their opponents.
“I think it says a lot about our coaches and how we set up practice,” Entz stated. “I think we were extremely balanced in practice. We’re still a line of scrimmage-dominated football program and for us to be able to run the football 50-plus times is outstanding.”
As the regular season winds down, the final two games are imperative for North Dakota State. Currently sitting at 5-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and 7-2 overall, the Bison will likely need to win out in order to keep their first-round bye or a top-four seed in the FCS at the very least. Despite what’s at stake this Saturday, the Bison are keeping the same 1-0 mindset they have had for so long.
“1-0 is how we’re going to address it right now,” Entz said. “This is the biggest one of the year for us because it’s the next one and it would be disrespectful I think to Nick and his team if we even started to think about things beyond Saturday.
The Bison and Salukis will kick off from Carbondale, Ill. at 1:00 p.m. The game will be televised on the statewide ABC network of WDAY. You can also listen to Rob Hipp on the play-by-play with Bison legend Phil Hansen on the commentary at Bison1660-AM or 92.7 on the FM dial.