Reminiscent of 1985
A big home crowd at the Fargodome will help North Dakota State against Robert Morris in a game that features two teams making their first Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
FARGO, N.D. — It was the year of the new Coke, the end of my favorite childhood television show,"The Dukes of Hazzard," the year Nintendo launched another favorite of mine, its "Super Mario Brothers" game, the year that Pete Rose tied and broke the Major League Baseball hit record from Ty Cobb and the year of movie "Back to the Future."
That year was also one that I remember growing up in rural southeastern North Dakota with North Dakota State getting into the playoffs of the Division II rankings narrowly with an 8-2-1 record.
The Bison needed several things to go right for them to get into the then eight-field team.
That team would win two road playoff games (at top-ranked UC Davis and at conference foe and North Central Conference champion South Dakota) before capturing the national championship game against North Alabama — the last one hosted in McAllen, Texas.
As history moves forward to 2010, NDSU received a stroke of luck as the Fargo-based Bison seemingly being selected as the last at-large selection for this year’s 20-team D-I FCS playoff field.
NDSU has a 7-4 overall mark in a year that the FCS championship moves back to the state of Texas — Frisco to be exact in the first football title game to be moved to the Lone Star state at any division since that last game in McAllen.
Unlike 1985, however, NDSU will host a first-round playoff contest against the Northeast Conference champions of Robert Morris.
What went right for the Bison to be included in their first D-I playoff appearance?
Most likely the biggest thing to go right despite losing at Missouri Valley foe Missouri State 3-0 was the fact that NDSU opened the season with a win over the Big 12’s Kansas 6-3.
That was the Bison’s only real signature victory. But they also played in the second strongest GPI conference of the MVFC in a year that seemed all the teams were knocking one another off where two other 7-4 overall teams in Northern Iowa and Western Illinois also made the playoffs and will also play first round games.
The Bison also were fortunate that the playoff field expanded to 20 schools as I doubt they would have made a 16-team field.
The expanded field has NDSU's opponent, Robert Morris, making the Northeast Conference’s first ever bid as well as Coastal Carolina from the Big South Conference to go with two extra at-large teams — possibly NDSU and conference-mate Western Illinois, which Coastal Carolina is hosting.
MVFC champion Northern Iowa hosts Patriot League champion Lehigh.
The big reason NDSU has won seven games is its defense,
The Bison tied for eighth in the FCS in scoring defense (16.6 points per game) and first in the MVFC in rushing defense (107.6 yards per game).
North Dakota State's defense has 25 takeaways through 11 games compared with 12 overall in 2009. The Bison are plus-nine in turnovers and rank 12th nationally.
This might be the biggest reason the Bison improved from 3-8 in 2009 to 7-4 season in 2010.
NDSU has a strong punting game that is second in the nation in net punting (39.25 avg.) and John Prelvitz is third nationally, averaging 43.73 yards per punt.
What went wrong with the Bison this year?
The Bison defense made up for a lackluster offense that scored just 21.8 points per game (second-to-last in the MVFC).
The biggest reason for the offensive woes has been the quarterback position, which has had two players start in sophomore Jose Mohler and redshirt freshman Brock Jensen, and a third, junior Dante Perez play due to injuries to the other two.
The offense showed promise from junior running back D.J. McNorton, who ranked 19th in FCS in rushing yards per game (101.6). His statistics are impressive considering defenses stacked the line to stop him, forcing the MVFC’s worst passing offense (157.1 yards per game) to beat them.
With the injuries, true freshman Esley Thorton has to be considered playing under center. Thorton was the North Dakota high school player of the year a season ago.
Who will be the first-round playoff opponent for NDSU?
Robert Morris, who finished 8-2 overall and 7-1 within Northeast Conference play, will make its first FCS playoff appearance and third postseason appearance. RMU started football two seasons after the last home playoff game for NDSU.
RMU’s two other postseason games were the ECAC Bowl appearances in 1996 (win over Duquesne 28-26) and 1997 (win over Georgetown 35-13). This bowl game pitted the two nonscholarship conferences in the East, the NEC and the now-defunct Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) champions.
RMU implements just 34 scholarships now. NDSU in contrast has the full 63 scholarship allotment allowed in FCS.
The Colonials' biggest offensive threat is senior running back Myles Russ. He is the school’s all-time leading rusher and is sixth nationally this year with a 124.6-yard average.
His running threat takes pressure off sophomore quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who has led RMU to 29.6 points per game this year and is 13-4 since being inserted into the starting lineup last year.
The Colonial defense is headed by two seniors in linebacker Alex DiMichele and safety Michael Landers.
DiMichele ranks second all-time at Robert Morris with 323 career tackles while Landers owns the school record for tackles by a defensive back with 271 and is sixth all-time at Robert Morris. Landers also ranks fourth all-time in career interceptions with 12.
The coach at RMU has been the only one that the school has ever seen since implementing football in 1994, former NFL head coach Joe Walton, who has a 103-69-1 all-time record with the Colonials.
Prior to becoming the RMU head man, he was the NFL’s New York Jets head coach from 1983-89, when he went 53-57-1 (.482). Also included among Walton’s 35 NFL seasons were two (1990-91) as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A two-time All-America tight end at the University of Pittsburgh, Walton played seven years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.
What is NDSU’s playoff record?
While this is the Bison’s first trip to the D-I playoffs, NDSU is no stranger to postseason play — although they have not seen a game since the 2000 season. That season, NDSU reached the D-II semifinals before falling at eventual champions of Delta (Mississippi) State.
NDSU has the second most 17 D-II playoff appearances and has six bowl games in its history (prior to 1973, no playoffs were in place at any division of football so champions were determined by polls).
The Bison are 35-13 overall in the postseason including a 30-12 record in DII.
North Dakota State has won eight national championships (1965, 1968, 1969, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1990) and national runner-up three times (1967, 1981 and 1984).
The Bison also were third-place finishers five times (1970, 1976, 1977, 1982, 2000).
NDSU coach Craig Bohl’s team finished its four-year transition period from D-II to D-I with back-to-back 10-1 seasons. During the transition, the Bison achieved wins over FBS Ball State, Minnesota and Central Michigan as well as road contests at traditional powers such as Georgia Southern.
While NDSU made the postseason in 2000, it did not have a home game and the last home playoff game in Fargo was in 1992, which was when I was still in college at Fargo.
While the playoff selection committee might have given NDSU a second life, I doubt a national title is within its grasp. But a win or two might not be out of the question.
As we know, defense tends to win championships, especially in poor weather when offense is hard to muster.
For NDSU fans, it might not be back to the future but having a first playoff game in a facility that was made to host such games will do.
CSN West Playoff Game Previews
Robert Morris (8-2, 7-1 NEC) at North Dakota State (7-4, 4-4 MVFC) 7 p.m. Eastern
The Bison are 5-1 at home this year and were 3-0 against non-Missouri Valley teams. Robert Morris is 3-2 on the road.
The Colonials will be playing in front of the most fans they have seen this year as a near capacity crowd is expected in Fargo. The winner will play at No. 4 seeded Montana State next weekend.
This is the first meeting between the two schools. NDSU is 2-0 all-time against teams from the Northeast Conference, with wins over Central Connecticut State in 2008 and Wagner in 2009.
Robert Morris has never played against a Missouri Valley Football Conference foe.
Both teams are coming off road losses in their final regular-season games. NDSU lost 3-0 to Missouri State and RMU lost to Bryant 27-21 — a week after wrapping up the NEC title with a win over CCSU.
Probably the toughest opponent that RMU has faced was a Liberty team, ironically who NDSU seemingly beat out for one of the final spots in the postseason. The Colonials defeated the Flames 30-23 in Moon Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Robert Morris also dropped a 28-14 decision in its season opener to eventual Pioneer Football League co-champion Dayton. Dayton and fellow PFL champion Jacksonville were left out of the playoffs with 10-1 records.
This game will likely come down to who wins in the trenches. This is an area where the Missouri Valley teams should have a drastic advantage against any NEC team.
While NDSU's offense has struggled, its defense has played well and against a team such as the Colonials, it could create turnovers and force several punting situations.
Robert Morris, however, has shown some offensive firepower this season behind Sinclair and Russ and could cause the Bison some trouble, if the Colonials get off to one of their characteristic fast starts.
NDSU has waited too long for a home playoff game and the large crowd in the Fargodome also will likely play a role in the outcome. I think NDSU's offense will be able to muster enough against the Colonial defense to score.
With their strong homefield advantage, the Bison should advance to play in Bozeman the following Saturday. North Dakota State 27, Robert Morris 14.
Kent’s Projections of the Other two CSN West Teams:
at Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa 31 Lehigh 20
at Coastal Carolina
Western Illinois 31, Coastal Carolina 28