Bison fans show the look of defeat in the closing seconds of the Indiana State game in 2012
I keep going back to that number, the average yards rushing per game for Indiana State heading into Saturday’s return to the Fargodome against NDSU. Back in the Shakir Bell heyday of a couple of years ago, that was less than a half’s worth of production for the Sycamores, who have been relying on the passing game and a physical defense to put themselves in the FCS playoff hunt. That may bode well for most of the Missouri Valley games, but it generally doesn’t work at the dome, where the crowd noise and NDSU’s Tampa 2 defensively philosophy make the passing game a tough proposition.
The Bison have won 49 of their last 51 games, but let’s scrutinize the two losses and how they happened: The Sycs, of course, were the last team to do it and Bell had a good second half in running the ball, picking up a couple of key first downs in the fourth quarter when the Bison needed the ball back. In 2011, Jamaine Cook had 147 yards rushing and Youngstown won 27-24 at the dome thanks to a time of possession advantage of 37 minutes to 23.
In other words, both of those teams beat NDSU at its own game: a power running attack and holding on to the ball. So getting back to that 86.2; barring an NDSU offensive collapse, ISU most likely has to somehow find a way to reverse that stat if it wants to make it two straight at the dome.
The first Gridiron Power Index ratings of the season were released this week by the College Sporting News and to no surprise the Missouri Valley Football Conference was dominant. The league had eight teams in the top 15 — a conference record.
The GPI bills itself as a leading indicator for at-large playoff selections, although who knows how much importance a playoff committee puts into it behind closed doors. They should, but it hasn’t always been evident in past selections. Anyway, NDSU is No. 1, Illinois State third, Southern Illinois sixth, Youngstown State 10th, Indiana State 11th, Northern Iowa 12th, South Dakota State 14th and Missouri State 15th. The other Valley teams – Western Illinois is 34th and South Dakota 39th.
So Kansas is looking for a head football coach and allow me to give a little advice: look for somebody who can do a lot with a little, in this case a guy who has not been spoiled by the riches of the NFL or a hot shot assistant from a Power 5 conference program. My media friends in the Twin Cities are promoting Gopher assistant Tracy Claeys, which could be a good choice since they say he’s a small-town Kansas guy. I’m taking that to mean he’d build the program the blue-collar way.
Western Illinois appears to have gotten it right in its head coach, hiring Bob Nielson from Division II Minnesota-Duluth. I suppose WIU could have found some lower-end assistant from an FBS but instead chose to go with a guy who has built programs everywhere he’s been. Duluth won two D2 national titles.
WIU athletic director Tommy Bell, when he was a fundraising guy at Southern Illinois, saw that model work with Jerry Kill, who was at a D2 for over a decade before getting the SIU job. SIU back then, by the way, was horrible, and Kill made it a national title contender.
“You get hot shots from other programs, and nothing against them, but they’ve been spoiled and are used to having nobody say no to them and not having limited budgets,” Bell told me earlier today. “Here, it’s different in the FCS. We all have limited budgets, even the Bison — they don’t have an unlimited budget — so you have to have people who know how to run programs and stretch a dollar. I’m an advocate of that. And I think it’s going to work here and we’re just in the process a little bit at a time.”
WIU is much better than the couple years prior when Nielson took over last year. If NDSU doesn’t play well, and considering it’s homecoming at WIU and the place will be nuts, stranger things have happened. But look for the Leathernecks to more closely resemble a physical Missouri Valley team in the coming years on a yearly basis — rather than the hit-and-miss of the last several seasons. That’s what you get when you hire somebody who is on their way up — and not some former hot shot offensive coordinator from the NFL or somebody who couldn’t make it work at Notre Dame.
The beauty of the newspaper business is you always learn something from someone. This week, I learned the difference between plaid and tartan thanks to my story on new NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen.
In the first paragraph, I made note of what Larsen was wearing including a “plaid yellow and green tie worn by coaches and administrators over the past year.” In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast. Holly Bastow-Shoop, the head of the Department of Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management in the College of Human Development at NDSU, wrote a nice note saying the tie is tartan, not plaid. Tartan, she wrote, has been used for centuries in Scotland to represent a family clan. In the old days when at war with ones neighbors, you needed to know friend-and-foe so coloration was the key to, say, not shooting your cousin.
So from the family color theme came the NDSU Tartan Scholarship Project for students in the College of Human Development. The tartan has been designed, products produced, sourced, marketed and sold by the students, Holly writes, and is used as an educational opportunity to learn the market process. The students currently have over 20 products available. There you have it; and here I thought tartan was just a 1970s basketball arena surface.
I’m not going to need the Father of Football to dissect the key to this game: rushing the football. That’s it.
Specifically for NDSU, stopping the Grizzlies’ running game is probably priority A and there’s no need to look further than the Montana stats this season. Wyoming shut the Griz down to just 42 yards rushing forcing quarterback Jordan Johnson to the air. He completed 24 of 45 for 185 yards and the Cowboys took a 17-12 win.
Last week, the Griz ground game got going against South Dakota to the tune of over 200 yards. It meant Johnson only had to attempt 27 passes with 16 completions. Statistically anyway, it’s apparent that Johnson’s comfort zone in the passing department does not match that of Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams, who would think nothing of putting up 50 attempts per game. Johnson’s game is all about controlling the offense and putting his guys in the right spots. It’s called balance.
If it sounds familiar to NDSU fans, it should. It’s what Brock Jensen did so well, especially his last couple of years. Jensen’s passing stats weren’t eye popping, but the almighty statistic of games won was. So if Johnson needs 25 passing attempts or less, it could be a good day for the Grizzlies. If he’s winging it 40 to 50 times, it could be a good day for the Bison.
Complaints have been somewhat common since the 2013 FCS playoff field was announced last November that the Missouri Valley didn’t get more than two teams in the 24-team field. In response, commissioner Patty Viverito put the following challenge to her league teams: play the competition and beat the competition.
She’s 100 percent right. Although perhaps not the marquee matchups, the Valley is 8-0 this year against other FCS teams including 2-0 against the Big Sky Conference and Ohio Valley and 1-0 against the Southland. On Saturday, there are three more games with the Big Sky: UND at Missouri State, South Dakota at Montana and South Dakota State at Southern Utah. NDSU hosts Incarnate Word of the Southland but the reclassifying Cardinals don’t hold lot of weight yet in the FCS. There are two Valley vs. Ohio Valley matchups: Illinois State hosting Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois hosting Southeast Missouri State.
Last year, the Missouri Valley was 5-6 in non-conference play against teams ranked in the top 25. So far, it is 1-0 with SIU beating Eastern last week.
It’s an easy statement to make: if the Missouri Valley expects more than two teams in the playoffs when the field is announced this November, it needs to maintain the early-season pace.
“I don’t care what they say, there’s some subjectivity involved in that whole thing,” SDSU head coach John Stigegelmeier said of the selection process. “We as a league can clear it up by continuing to win against the Big Sky or the Ohio Valley or whoever.”