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McFeely: Gauntlet past, Bison set up again for high seed

Dallas Freeman of North Dakota State gets congratulated by Easton Stick for his touchdown against Illinois State during their football game Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 2
Trey Lance of North Dakota State picks off an Illinois State pass to the end zone during their football game Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 2

FARGO — Illinois State head coach Brock Spack, a familiar face to those who follow North Dakota State football, looked a little different Saturday, Oct. 20. His once-impressive mustache was just growing back in again, a little grayer than before, after he shaved it off last week.

That was the result of a bet Spack made with his players. If the Redbirds won by 35 points or more against rival Southern Illinois, Spack would say goodbye to the soup-strainer.

By game time next week, the Spack 'Stache will likely be back in all its glory. He and Illinois State won no bets playing the Bison.

It was same-old, same-old. The final was 28-14 for the No. 1-ranked Bison against the No. 7-ranked Redbirds. What was touted as a matchup of Division I FCS heavyweights turned into a second-half snoozer in which Spack used the break between the third and fourth quarters to urge his team to keep playing hard in an effort to win—the fourth quarter.

The game was out of reach, Spack knew, but he wanted his team to outscore the Bison in the final 15 minutes. It did, 7-0, which only made the final score closer.

Is this what FCS has come down to? A top-10 team just trying to stay competitive against the mighty Bison?

We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but with four games left in the regular season it looks like NDSU is perfectly positioned (again) to gain one of the top two seeds for the FCS playoffs. That means the Bison (again) wouldn't have to leave the Fargodome on the road to Frisco, Texas, and the FCS championship game.

The longtime Illinois State coach has seen this movie before.

"Physical running game. Pass the ball on their terms. Play great defense. Excellent in the kicking game. That's the recipe," Spack said. "They do what they do. And if they fall behind in a game ... they don't panic."

All the preseason talk in the FCS was about how loaded the defending champion Bison were and how it was going to be up to 2017 runner-up and 2016 champ James Madison to knock them off. That, apparently, has not changed. Even South Dakota State, the only team to challenge NDSU this season in a 21-17 game in Fargo, lost Saturday at Northern Iowa. That's the same Panthers team the Bison beat 56-31 a couple of weeks ago.

For the fifth time in seven seasons, NDSU has started 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the rugged Valley. While the rest of FCS seems to be a crapshoot from week-to-week (traditional playoff seeds like Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State both lost Saturday to throw their seasons into turmoil, while what's happening in the Big Sky Conference is anybody's guess), the Bison just keep being the Bison.

NDSU is the team that keeps on winning and, to this point, looks bulletproof in the whacked-out FCS.

On paper, the Bison's toughest conference competition is behind them. Their Valley slate was front-loaded with SDSU, Northern Iowa, Western Illinois and Illinois State. Remaining is South Dakota on the road, Youngstown State at home, Missouri State on the road and Southern Illinois at home.

For the Bison to fall out of a top two seed, it would likely have to lose twice in that stretch. And NDSU hasn't lost twice in four games since 2010.

"We're in good shape right now. I knew the month of October was going to be really difficult, having three of four on the road. We have one more in the month of October here," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said. "The tough thing is playing that first game and then not having a bye, so we don't really have that opportunity to get fresh. That's why our depth has to really show here in the last four games of the regular season. Our depth has to really come to the forefront because we'll be down some guys."

That is true, NDSU will be banged up down the stretch. When running back Bruce Anderson will return from a hamstring injury is unknown. Safety Robbie Grimsley played through a hamstring injury against Illinois State. The Bison played three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on special teams Saturday to give veterans like James Hendricks and Jaylaan Wimbush a break.

But here's another fact: Every other team has injured players at this time of the year, too. And while NDSU has the depth to withstand the bumps, bruises, strains and sprains, other programs like South Dakota, Missouri State and Southern Illinois do not.

Advantage NDSU. Again.

Some things never change, it seems. Even if Spack's facial hair did.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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