Just over a month ago, the Bison were preparing for what many considered to be the most highly anticipated regular-season matchup in Fargodome history. As the No. 1 ranked Bison welcomed the No. 2 ranked South Dakota State Jackrabbits to Fargo, it would be foolish to think it wasn’t the ‘game of the year’ for North Dakota State. While giving the Dakota Marker that title may be appropriate, it would be a shame to forget the great, in-state rivalry between North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
All the way through the 2003 football season, when both schools were still in Division II, the Bison and then-named Sioux had squared off a total of 110 times. During that stretch, UND had a winning record of 62-45-3 against the Bison dating back to 1894. Since joining the MVFC in 2020, the rivalry has been renewed and is set for a new chapter on Saturday. With both teams ranked inside the top 20, the Nickel Trophy on the line, and the playoffs right around the corner, Saturday’s game has a lot at stake and is sure to be a great atmosphere inside the Fargodome.
“We always say they’re our little brothers to the north,” Bison tight end Joe Stoffel said of UND. “It’s going to be a really fun game. The fans, they’re going to be up on their feet, they’re going to be loud which is going to be really helpful for us. It’s going to be a fun Saturday.”
The Bison defense that has been much improved, especially in their run defense, will have a lot on their hands against an explosive Hawks offense led by quarterback Tommy Schuster. Schuster, who is the leader in completion percentage among all qualifiers in the Missouri Valley Conference, is coming off a performance where he threw for three touchdowns while completing 85.7 percent of his passes in a win against South Dakota.
“You could sit there and compare him a little bit to (SIU QB) Nic Baker, who we saw this last week from the ability to extend plays, get the ball out quick,” Bison Head Coach Matt Entz stated. “He doesn’t make very many bad decisions. We’re going to do a really good job of trying to disguise some things and hopefully changing the picture on him so he doesn’t just feel comfortable back in the pocket.”
A large part of the Bison’s improved defense has been due to the play of the linebacker and defensive line play. With the departure of many key defenders from last season, a lot of young Bison players were forced to step into those roles. Luke Weerts, a redshirt junior, has filled the middle linebacker spot for most of the season. Weerts has made starts in each of the last two games and recorded a career-high 8 tackles last week. As the season has moved along, Weerts and fellow middle linebacker Nick Kubitz have become more comfortable in their role.
“I think we’ve both become a lot more confident as the season went along, as we’ve got more reps,” Weerts elaborated. “I think that’s going to pay dividends in the last of the season and in the playoffs moving forward.”
On the offensive side of the football, the Bison will most likely be without star fullback Hunter Luepke and starting right tackle Mason Miller. Miller, who broke his ankle last week at Southern Illinois, will have surgery and be out for the remainder of the season. As for Luepke, Entz and the rest of the staff have their doubts but are hopeful that Luepke can play.
“Unlikely, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Entz stated. “Going to look into a second opinion right now just to make sure that we have all the information that’s needed before we make the appropriate decision.”
If Luepke is indeed out for Saturday’s game, it may allow a heavier workload for tailbacks Kobe Johnson, TaMerik Williams, and Dominic Gonnella among others. Also, as Luepke is a big piece of the passing game, other pass catchers such as Joe Stoffel, who has had a huge impact this season with the absence of Noah Gindorff, will likely play a bigger role.
“I think it’s just been a lot of preparation,” Stoffel stated. “I think (Noah) and Josh Babicz did a great job with taking me along under their wing throughout my first couple years here and preparing me for this situation very well.”
Saturday is also a bittersweet day for many players and coaches at NDSU. Prior to the game, thirteen Bison seniors will be introduced to the crowd before they play their last regular season game at the Fargodome. Players Nash Jensen, playing in his career 66th game, Spencer Waege, Cody Mauch, Dawson Weber, Michael Tutsie, Noah Gindorff, James Kaczor, Destin Talbert, Hunter Luepke, TaMerik Williams, Luke LaCilento, Anthony Coleman, and Jalen Bussey will all be introduced prior to kick off on Saturday.
“Those guys have been through it,” Weerts stated. “They’re all great leaders and they’ve worked their tails off every year that they’ve been here.”
The Bison and Fighting Hawks’ battle for the Nickel Trophy will kick off from the Fargodome at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. The game will also be televised on the statewide ABC network of WDAY. On the radio, you can listen to Rob Hipp on the play-by-play and Bison legend Phil Hansen on the commentary at Bison1660-AM or 92.7 on the FM dial.