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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: North Dakota State Bison

Here come the Bison!

NCAA Football: FCS Championship-Jacksonville State vs North Dakota State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this Saturday’s contest, it’s no secret that North Dakota State Bison have had a lot going for them over recent seasons, as they currently possess a five-game win streak over Power 5 programs — dating back to 2010 — with wins over Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State (doesn’t really count), and Minnesota twice.

In addition, since 2011, the Bison hold a combined record of 73-5 and have won the last five FCS national titles; safe to say this is an FCS team not to be taken lightly by the Hawkeyes and their fans.

The Bison are Ready to Rumble

When you watch the Bison play, you begin to view the terms smashmouth and power running game in an entirely different light. North Dakota State’s offense is predicated on pure power, as they’re able to efficiently and effectively pound the opposing defense’s front seven throughout the duration of a game.

This play is a great display of the kind of power-running the Bison bring to the table, taken from their week two matchup with Eastern Washington: Here, the Bison line up in an I-formation which includes an extra blocker on both ends of the play.

Once the ball is snapped, it seems as though every Bison offensive lineman is able to carry out their assignment by annihilating the player lined up across from them. However, what truly makes this play go is the left guard pulling and then being able to seal the SAM linebacker back towards the inside and the fullback — who Hawkeye fans can appreciate — providing the lead block on the safety.

Another great example of the Bison’s power running game came in their season-opener against Charleston Southern: Once again, the Bison line up in an I-formation with an extra blocker on both ends of the line of scrimmage.

Once the ball is snapped, the center and the right guard peel off to the right, with the center taking care of the playside safety and the right guard sealing in the SAM linebacker. In addition, the fullback is, yet again, setting the lead block, this time on the boundary corner, thus creating an alley for running back, King Frazier, to run through.

This type of power-based alignment is one that most FBS college football fans haven’t had a lot of exposure to, but it’s one that the Bison heavily incorporate into their offense.

Another effective aspect of the Bison’s offense is their quarterback run game, as the coaching staff is able to sprinkle in a little bit of quarterback power along with some zone read plays.

This play serves as a great example of the Bison’s incorporation of quarterback power: In a little bit of twist, the Bison elect to line up in the shotgun here, with only one extra blocker on the line of scrimmage as opposed to two.

One of the commonalities you immediately notice with the Bison’s playcalling is just how often and willing the Bison coaching staff is to put their interior offensive lineman out in space and to utilize the fullback as a lead blocker.

In this case, it also helps that sophomore quarterback Easton Stick is an intelligent and capable runner who possesses dangerous speed with the ball in his hands, as he’s able to blow by defenders on his way to picking up a first down.

Revolving Door at Quarterback

One of the biggest reasons the Bison have been able to dominate the FCS over recent seasons is their ability to consistently churn out highly productive and talented quarterbacks. Players such as current Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Brock Jensen and, most notably, this year’s second overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, Carson Wentz.

With Wentz now on to the NFL, the door has been left wide open for Stick to take over right where his predecessors left off — winning championships.

Much like Jensen and Wentz, Stick is able to put a nice amount of velocity behind his passes, as he’s able to get the ball to his receivers quickly and on time. In addition, Stick also has the willingness and ability to throw up a nice deep ball.

Earlier, I touched on Stick’s ability to take off and run with effectiveness. However, Coach Chris Klieman and the Bison coaching staff are very creative with how they’re able to maximize Stick’s abilities.

Take this play against Charleston Southern for example: Here, the Bison are once again lined up in an I-formation with an extra blocker on both ends of the line. However, this time, the Bison decide to run a naked boot play off of play action, which proves to be effective, as Stick is able to find himself in complete isolation outside of the pocket.

On this play, Stick is in a true position of power, as he has a choice of continuing to survey the field for an open receiver or he has the choice to simply take off and pick up some solid yardage on the ground, which is what he ends up doing.

Playing as a Collective

Heading into my film study of the Bison, I initially had a list of names that I thought I’d try to hone in on. Players such as Stick, Nick DeLuca, Lance Dunn, King Frazier, Tre Dempsey, RJ Urzendowski, etc.. However, I quickly discovered something that made me truly admire the Bison football team; there are no stars, they play as a collective unit.

When you turn on the Bison’s defensive film, there isn’t a single player that completely stands out and sets himself apart from the rest. Sure, a player like middle linebacker DeLuca, who is coming off a 15 tackle performance against Eastern Washington, which garnered him MVFC player of the week honors, is able to fill up the box score. However, I wouldn’t say DeLuca’s talent suggests he should be considered a star player; I’d instead classify him as a very good player who simply executes his assignments.

It’s true that this Bison team does lack a bit of the star level talent that they’ve had in years past. However, from top to bottom, this team has good to very good starters at each position and contributors who are willing to consistently perform at a high level. Coupled with intensity, those two aspects alone are enough to wear out an opposing team after a long period of time.

In large part, that's one of the reasons this program has experienced such incredible success: Great player development, high-motor players, and excellent coaching.

The First True Test

The biggest mistake most underdog teams commit is getting down on themselves early or not coming out of the gates with confidence. I assure you, that will not be an issue with this team, as they’re well-equipped to handle adversity, both mentally and physically. They'll undoubtedly come out of the gates swinging.

The position group to keep tabs on for the Hawkeyes in this game will be at linebacker, specifically with Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, as they’ll be forced into engaging and disengaging with blockers throughout the game and their ability to fill running lanes could make or break the defense’s effectiveness.

In addition, safeties Brandon Snyder and Miles Taylor will also need to step up when it comes to filling running lanes on the outside and preventing the Bison from busting off a big play on the ground, as Jewell and Niemann won’t be able to be in position on every play.

Overall, the Bison are deep at nearly every position and they come equipped with a strong group of high effort, high-intensity players who’ll test the Hawkeyes offense and defense from start to finish.