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SIU Football

SIU Football | Salukis deal with FCS' gold standard in NDSU

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NDSU SIU Football

SIU running back Javon Williams Jr. (right) runs for a big gain against No. 1 North Dakota State at Saluki Stadium. 

Sam Houston State is the defending FCS champion. James Madison, Eastern Washington and Appalachian State – before it jumped to FBS – have all taken their turn atop FCS.

But if you’re looking for the gold standard in FCS, look no further than the team SIU has to beat on Saturday.

When North Dakota State was knocked out of the spring FCS playoffs by Sam Houston State, it marked just the second time in 10 years that the Bison failed to hoist the championship trophy.

NDSU won five straight years from 2011-15, then added championships in 2017-19 after JMU took the 2016 title. Nick Saban and Alabama only dream of that kind of dominance.

NDSU currently has 12 players on NFL rosters, including Indianapolis quarterback Carson Wentz and San Francisco rookie Trey Lance, the 2019 Payton Award winner that goes to the best player in FCS. 

Asked how the Bison have maintained this level of dominance for so long, Salukis coach Nick Hill pointed to one thing.

“If you want to win a championship, it’s usually going to happen on the line of scrimmage, the defensive line,” he said. “I quickly realized in 2017 and 2018 where we needed to place a greater emphasis. If you don’t do that, you won’t have a shot. You’ve got to be more physical than them.”

Only South Dakota State, which stopped NDSU 27-19 last month at home, has been able to match or surpass the Bison’s ability at the scrimmage line. NDSU is averaging nearly 200 more yards per game on the ground than its opponents.

The Bison don’t have a workhorse back per se, but boast terrific balance. Seven players have between 214 and 493 yards. They average 6.2 yards per rushing attempt and control the ball for more than 31 ½ minutes per game.

“It starts with the run game,” Hill said of NDSU. “They’re going to test your physical will. They line up and play fundamental football. They line up and out-execute you.”

And when the Bison choose to throw, they have one of the best receivers in FCS at their disposal. Christian Watson’s 39 catches, 740 yards and seven touchdowns might be doubled if he played in a more pass-oriented attacks. His numbers here serve as a warning – devote too many resources to stopping the run and you get to deal with him.

Then there’s the NDSU defense, which uses a simple formula to stop the opponents: Shut down the run, jump on the lead and force offenses to become one-dimensional. Only three opponents have rushed for more than 100 yards against them.

The Bison have notched 40 sacks and allowed just 12.1 points per game. They’ve recorded two shutouts and posted three other wins in which the opponent didn’t get more than seven points.

If this wasn’t enough for SIU to overcome, try this on for size: The Fargodome itself. It is one of the toughest stadiums for a road team to win in at any level of football. It seats nearly 19,000 and it might be sold out on Saturday.

“The fan base there is unbelievable,” Hill said. “The passion they have, you can feel it consistently.”

So how do the Salukis quiet that passion? Well, the good news is they at least know the blueprint, because they executed it perfectly on Feb. 27 in Carbondale. They outrushed NDSU 170-109, got 254 yards from quarterback Nic Baker in his first start and bum-rushed the Bison 38-14 to end their 39-game winning streak.

Some might say that result will motivate NDSU to stop SIU, but Hill has another viewpoint.

“We feel confident in our guys,” he said. “Last time, we obviously got going in moving the football and we got stops. A lot of the same players will be back on the field. Now we have to go out there, block them and do the same thing.”


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