CARBONDALE — Normally you can't talk about No. 1 North Dakota State without mentioning its defense. Its last two head coaches, who both won multiple FCS national championships, were former defensive coordinators, and current leader Matt Entz was the defensive coordinator on last year's team that won it all.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance, running back Ty Brooks and an offensive line that has allowed seven sacks in 11 games has changed the conversation a bit this season. Lance, who looks like another NFL prospect after Carson Wentz and Easton Stick both made the jump, is the Bison's second-leading rusher with 684 yards and nine touchdowns on 96 carries, and hasn't thrown an interception yet on 196 attempts. Brooks, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior from Fargo, averages eight yards a carry and has lost 19 yards all season on 99 attempts.
The offensive line, the quiet stars of No. 1 NDSU's top-scoring offense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, features preseason All-American right guard Zack Johnson and second team preseason All-American left tackle Dillon Radunz.
"I think they're going out and doing their job at the highest level that they can," Entz said. "I think part of that is (offensive line) coach (A.J.) Blazek continues to push 'em and challenge 'em to be better, to be around the football, even at the end of plays. You see 6-6, 310-pound guys flying down the field trying to get another block. I think they're taking pride in everything that they can. I know it's a badge of honor to know that Trey hasn't been touched very much this year, and they believe in each other."
NDSU (11-0, 7-0 MVFC) has already extended its record streak of nine straight conference titles, tied or outright, and will tie its own FCS record with a win at SIU (7-4, 5-2) Saturday. The Bison, who have won seven of the last eight FCS national championships, take a 32-game winning streak into Saluki Stadium. They will tie their FCS-record 33-game romp, set between 2012-14, with a win, and likely wrap up the No. 1 seed in the 24-team FCS playoff field.
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"They might be better than they have been in the past," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "They've had a couple of quarterbacks making a lot of money in the NFL, and I think (Lance) is on his way to do that as well. He's as good as those guys, or will be. They just do so many things really well. We've had to watch them on film — we've played a number of opponents after they have — and you're not going to get tricked or they don't do a lot of special things, they just execute at a really high level. All 22 guys really play with great technique and fundamentals. They're very well coached. They have good schemes, but they really out-execute you for 60 minutes with really good players."
Then there's that renowned defense, which only leads the nation in total defense (274.1 yards allowed per game), passing defense (151.5 yards allowed per game) and pass efficiency defense (101.4). Only 18th-ranked Delaware and Western Illinois have scored more than 20 points against NDSU this season. The Blue Hens lost 47-22 in Delaware, and the Leathernecks got blown out 57-21 in Week 11.
SIU, winners of five straight games for the first time since 2009, entered the national rankings for the first time in five years on Monday when it came in tied with Yale for No. 25 in the American Football Coaches Association top 25. Running backs D.J. Davis (956 yards) and Javon Williams Jr. (921) are attempting to become the first two players to rush for 1,000 yards or more in the same season in school history. No Saluki has rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Hall of Famer Arkee Whitlock did in 2005 and 2006, but Davis is going for it after racking up 1,118 yards last year.
SIU hasn't beaten the Bison since 2009, the last time the Salukis made the FCS playoffs. NDSU has won seven straight games in the series, including last year's 65-17 blowout at the Fargodome. The Bison's 65 points are still the most points they've scored against an MVFC opponent.