The strangest offensive series of North Dakota State’s 33-21 loss at South Dakota State came near the end of the first half when Bison offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham called for four straight pass plays with less than 4 minutes left. The drive ended when quarterback Easton Stick threw an interception to SDSU’s Jordan Brown with 1:40 remaining in the second quarter, a gift the Jackrabbits turned into a touchdown just before halftime.
Instead of NDSU trailing 10-7 and getting the ball to start the second half, it trailed 17-7. The Bison were able to stay close to the Jacks, but never got the lead. They were chasing points the entire game, in part because of the turnover and resulting points after it.
Of course, making five turnovers is always going to make it nearly impossible to win no matter how good you are.
But the series in question was strange because the Bison — one of the best rushing teams in Football Championship Subdivision — didn’t run the ball once. With an opportunity to run some clock, get to halftime down only three points after a lackluster first half, after SDSU had clearly indicated it was willing to get to halftime ahead by three points — the Bison came out firing.
SDSU had punted and pinned the Bison at the 10-yard line, after a second-down running play gained nothing and an extremely safe third-down pass play went for zero yards. The Jacks clearly didn’t want to take a chance on a turnover, even though they were in NDSU territory.
So Stick passed on first down for seven yards to Darius Shepherd, then threw another pass to Shepherd for five yards and a first down. Stick’s next pass went to tight end Connor Wentz for 15 yards and another first down — and still the Bison were only at their own 37.
The clock by this time was under 2 minutes and the thought was perhaps they’ll be content to run the ball a couple of times and take a shot downfield as time drained away, maybe to get a shot at a field goal or a pass interference call. But after the chains were set, Stick dropped back and threw a ball toward the left sideline as receiver RJ Urzendowski cut inside toward the middle of the field — and Brown made the pick. With another opportunity and nothing to lose because there was only 1:40 left, the Jacks went to work and let ‘er rip.
SDSU had no trouble moving the ball downfield, a couple of big completions to star tight end Dallas Goedert were huge, and scored a touchdown when quarterback Taryn Christion scampered into the end zone on a 1-yard run with 14 seconds left until halftime.
From 10-7 to 17-7, just like that.
It felt like the Bison were trying to be something they are not — a team that hurries up and zips the ball down the field in the two-minute drill. They got away from has made them so successful all these years. They stopped running the ball.
There was another problem against the Jacks: Even when NDSU wanted to run the ball, it couldn’t. At least not very effectively. The Bison ran for a season-low 108 yards on a season-low 27 attempts. Part of those numbers, as Klieman has pointed out, was that NDSU trailed much of the game and had to chase points.
But the truth is, even when the game was close NDSU didn’t run the ball much or very effectively.
It’s actually come a trend, although it was more noticeable against SDSU than previously.
The Bison have been on a downward trend running the ball since a 27-24 overtime victory at Youngstown State. They ran for 280 yards against the Penguins, but even that number should sort of come with an asterisk because Stick accounted for 172 of those yards.
Yes, his stats count toward the rushing totals, too. But NDSU has made its mark since forever by having its running backs lead the way. Whether it was D.J. McNorton, Sam Ojuri, John Crockett, King Frazier, Lance Dunn or Bruce Anderson, the Bison have always relied on their backs to gain the bulk of the yards.
That hasn’t been happening this season, at least since the Bison began the grinder portion of the Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.
After Youngstown and Stick’s big game, NDSU hasn’t rushed for more than 200 yards in their next three games. The total has diminished each week. The Bison ran for 181 against Western Illinois, 169 against Northern Iowa and 108 against SDSU.
The last Bison back to gain more than 100 yards in a game was Anderson, who had 106 against Missouri State on Sept. 30 at the Fargodome.
Klieman made a few references to the Bison needing to run the ball more and more effectively in the wake of the loss in Brookings. He was particularly pointed Saturday in the postgame press conference. By Monday, he had softened a bit and blamed the Bison’s lack of running game production on not having the ball enough. And, true enough, the Bison for only 11:27 in the second half against the Jacks.
But he also said things like: “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re going to do what we do and do it better.”
When asked if the NDSU offensive line played well against SDSU, Klieman said: “I thought we played OK up front. We didn’t have the ball enough. Only 50, 55 plays. Twenty-seven runs. We need to run the ball more. We talked a bunch about that as a staff (Sunday). We typically aren’t chasing a game. When we were down two scores like we were for a decent chunk of the game, it probably got away from us a little bit and we threw the ball a little more than we wanted to. I wasn’t disappointed in our offensive line at all.”
After grinding out 26 carries for 78 yards against Northern Iowa, Anderson had only 30 yards on eight carries at SDSU.
Dunn is most likely out for the season after tearing the labrum in his right hip against Western Illinois. Sophomore Ty Brooks has missed much of the year because of injuries, although he appears to be healthy again. He had six carries for 49 yards against the Jacks, but 22 of those yards came on his first carry. True freshman Seth Wilson had his redshirt pulled against UNI and carried three times for one yard at SDSU.
It should be noted, Brooks’ 22-yard run was actually an 80-yard TD burst that was called back because of a downfield holding call.
After years of running back bounty, the Bison are a little short there now. And there are questions whether Anderson is an every-down back who can break big plays.
“You lose one of the top backs in the league, absolutely it’s a factor,” Klieman said, referring to Dunn. “I was really pleased with Ty. I thought he really ran well on limited carries. He busts an 80-yarder, that gave people life to say, ‘Wow, the kid’s a home run hitter’ We know he is. We probably have to give him the ball a little more.”
The Bison, for all the angst after the loss at SDSU, are still in control of their destiny. They are 8-1 and, if they can beat South Dakota on Saturday and win at Illinois State the following week, they will finish 10-1 and win the MVFC outright. That should get them the No. 2 seed for the playoffs, although it’s more likely they’d get the No. 3 or perhaps No. 4 seed. Even so, they’d have a first-round bye and not have to travel until the semifinals, assuming the higher seeded teams kept winning.
NDSU is still in very good position. But to keep it, and to capitalize on it, the Bison are going to have to run the ball better. And it has to start Saturday against the Coyotes.