Zach Zenner struggles for running room in last year’s game.
I touched on it in today’s Forum story, but the key to Saturday’s NDSU and SDSU game is rather obvious: can the Jackrabbits get running back Zach Zenner going against NDSU? The all-time Missouri Valley Football Conference rushing leader has had games of 34, 43, 46 and 4 yards in the previous four meetings against NDSU.
His production will in theory by vitally important with the Jacks bringing a first-year quarterback to Gate City Bank Field in sophomore Zach Lujan. Relying on the pass for SDSU could by a dicey deal — the Jacks have thrown seven interceptions in the four Valley games and have surrendered 19 quarterback sacks in that span. NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz has gone down seven times all season.
So, getting the Zenner machine going has to be Priority A for SDSU. He told Terry Vandrovec from the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader that he’s always confident in the Jacks’ scheme against NDSU. “It’s really just up to us to execute,” he said.
Is he bothered by his stats vs. NDSU? “What bothers me is offensively the past two games we’ve played them we haven’t done well – that’s the bottom line. As an offense, the really poor performances the past two games – that’s more the frustration for me,” he said.
The question all week has been if NDSU can maintain the amazing hold its had on Zenner. In this matchup, it’s really simple math.
My ballot for this week’s Sports Network FCS top 25 media poll. Cal Poly, Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin climb back in with victories. There are a pile of 5-3 teams that are hanging on for FCS playoff life heading into November.
The performance of the Bison offensive line in the season opener at Iowa State got rave reviews. The following week at Weber State? Not so much. The unit returned to form against the University of Montana, a game in which the Bison had the ball for over 39 minutes of a 60-minute game. The following week at Western Illinois? The line wasn’t so great.
“Just too many highs and lows,” said Bison offensive line coach Conor Riley.
The lows, however, seem to have disappeared the last two games and the hope for Riley is the offensive line has found its groove heading into Saturday’s clash at South Dakota. Certainly, four new starters doesn’t make for the easiest transition, although Riley says that doesn’t mean expectations should be lower. Both players and coaches say they were disappointed with the effort at WIU. For a history lesson, Riley said the coaches showed the offensive linemen some film from a few years ago when NDSU assistant coach Tyler Roehl was the starting running back.
“We put more of an emphasis on playing physical, playing fast and playing confident and I think that’s transferred into the results we’ve seen the last two weeks,” Riley said.
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.