The belief was that playing Mississippi Valley State would be a cakewalk for North Dakota State’s football team, allowing the Bison a breather before a big non-conference game at Eastern Washington. On the scoreboard, it was. NDSU won 72-7. On the depth chart, not so much.
The Bison lost three players to knee injuries Saturday — offensive tackle Dillon Radunz, safety Jaxon Brown and running back Demaris Purifoy. Brown could return this season. Radunz and Purifoy are out for the year, a full season of eligibility burned. Forum writer Jeff Kolpack has the news story here.
Radunz is a particularly big blow. The redshirt freshman from Becker, Minn., is a star in the making, a prized young player on the prized portion of the Bison offense. He didn’t start against the Delta Devils, but came in for the second series. He was expected to become the starting left tackle in short order, and anchor that key position for four years.
Radunz, in the parlance of former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, was a Big Knocker. He was one of those players who could be a cornerstone of the program.
Young Dillon joins All-American defensive end Greg Menard on the sidelines. Menard was lost to a knee injury in the first week of fall camp. Another Big Knocker, gone for the year.
There is a disturbing trend here for the Bison — the continuing loss of key players to season-ending injuries. Last year it was outstanding linebacker Nick DeLuca to a shoulder injury early in the season and superb nose tackle Nate Tanguay late. The Bison still finished the regular season with a 10-1 record, received the No. 1 playoff seed and advanced to the national semifinals. They weren’t exactly stalled by the injuries. But the presence of DeLuca and Tanguay against James Madison and running back Khalid Abdullah might have been enough to vault NDSU to a sixth straight national title game.
You begin to wonder if this season’s injuries will catch up to the Bison. It’s early and, yes, NDSU has more depth than most Football Championship Subdivision teams, but there is a long ways to go and they are already down two stars. Is it possible to avoid more key injuries over the next 10 games, including the always physical and tough Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule? How many more players going down can the Bison withstand?
Injuries are part of football. Every team has them. Nobody is feeling sorry for the Bison. NDSU has overcome injuries to significant players almost every year since this remarkable run of success began in 2011. The Bison team of 2015 missed quarterback Carson Wentz, the eventual No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, for a long stretch of the season and didn’t lose a game before Wentz returned to spark a victory in the national title game against Jacksonville State.
Other key players who’ve been lost for the year include linebacker Grant Olson, linebacker Travis Beck and defensive lineman Leevon Perry. It’s nothing new to the Bison — or any football team.
But this season already feels different because Menard tore his knee weeks before the first game and Radunz, Brown and Purifoy were lost in the first game. Are the odds finally catching up with NDSU? After winning five straight national championships, which took a couple of breaks to go with all that fine play, are the football gods leveling the field a little bit?
There’s no way to measure it, of course. Other teams will be hit with devastating injuries, too. But for a football program that dominated the FCS landscape in every way, shape and form between 2011 and 2015 — and much of 2016 — it seems like 2017 is getting off on exactly the wrong foot. Or knee, as it were.
NDSU is still a very strong team. If the Bison win this week at Eastern Washington, they are set up to make another strong run at a high playoff seed to guarantee at least a couple of home playoff games. But it’s also true defending national champ James Madison is the clear-cut No. 1 team in the FCS right now with a ton of momentum that used to reside solely in Fargo. Plus rival South Dakota State is loaded and Youngstown State perhaps did not drop off as far as some believed. NDSU has to play both SDSU and Youngstown on the road in MVFC games.
An already difficult path back to the top of FCS was going to be tough regardless. It’s going to be tougher now without a pair of Big Knockers. What if the Bison lose a couple more?