FRISCO, Texas – North Dakota State doesn’t have an exposable weakness.
Some of the most proven coaches in the country have burnt the midnight oil looking for Bison frailties, but their searches were often fruitless.
What they saw on tape was a hulking, athletic and disciplined NDSU program with a cupboard of next-level talent, a recipe for winning six of the last seven FCS national championships.
The top-ranked Bison (14-0), who face Eastern Washington (12-2) on Saturday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, in this season’s finale, boast the division’s winningest QB in Easton Stick (48-3), a Walter Payton Award finalist with a rising NFL draft stock.
Behind a big and decorated offensive front, All-American running back Bruce Anderson is another future pro. He ran for 160 yards against EWU a year ago.
The Bison are just as menacing on defense.
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, rangy sophomore linebacker Jabril Cox has the attention of NFL scouts, leading a defense that’s yielded only 11.9 points per game.
Even NDSU head coach Chris Klieman is a next-level commodity. Last month, Klieman accepted the same job at Kansas State – his salary will rise from from $300,000 to $2.3 million – and will begin full-time duties with the Wildcats after Saturday’s championship game.
In eight seasons, NDSU is 111-8 including a 5-0 mark against FBS programs in that stretch, downing Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State and Colorado State.
NDSU is favored by 14 points against Eastern Washington, the Big Sky Conference champion with a powerful, balanced offense and one of the best defenses in EWU history.
But do the Eagles have a puncher’s chance?
Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, a West Valley High graduate, thinks so.
He would know. The Bobcats fell 34-17 against EWU in Bozeman on Sept. 29 and were rolled 52-10 by NDSU in the second round of the playoffs.
In 2015, Gregorak was the defensive coordinator at Montana when the Grizzlies upset quarterback Carson Wentz’s eventual national championship team 38-35 in Missoula.
“EWU has been known for its offense, but it has really done well defensively, and if they can stop NDSU’s run, they’ll have a chance,” Gregorak said. “I was talking to (EWU defensive coordinator) Jeff Schmedding a couple weeks ago, and I said he should really overemphasize his run fits.”
Montana State scored on its first drive to a 3-0 lead at NDSU last month before the Bison flipped the switch.
“We get immediately to the red zone on a 70-yard pass, but then we get down there, they hold us to a field goal,” Gregorak said. “From there, it was pretty much over.
“That is one of the most complete football teams I have seen in my 15 years of FCS football, and I’ve coached in three national championships.”
Scoring touchdowns – not field goals – from the red zone will be key for EWU, which faces a defense that ranks first in red-zone defense.
NDSU’s defense has found itself in only 22 red-zone situations, yielding just seven touchdowns.
As dominant as the Bison have been this season, they had a slow-starting offense in a few Missouri Valley Conference games before wearing down their foes late in the game.
It was against the conference’s most physical defenses – ones akin to EWU’s this season – that gave NDSU early fits.
At Northern Iowa, NDSU trailed 31-28 early in the fourth quarter before the Bison scored 28 unanswered points. For the first three quarters, UNI kept the Bison running game in check.
At Youngstown State, the Bison were tied at 7 going into the fourth before grinding out a 17-7 win. NDSU managed 163 rushing yards.
In its regular-season meeting with rival South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits led 17-14 in the fourth quarter before NDSU left the FargoDome with 21-17 win. NDSU needed 47 carries to get 204 yards.
In last season’s 17-13 championship game win over James Madison, NDSU was held to 134 yards on 48 carries.
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley has seen plenty of EWU over the years, and watched the Eagles’ 34-29 quarterfinal win over UC Davis.
“What stood out to me is how they came from behind to win that game,” Farley said. “With the confidence on that final drive, they reminded of me NDSU.”
Farley believes the game will come down to the quarterback play of Stick and EWU dual-threat sophomore Eric Barriere.
With Barriere, the Eagles (44.5 ppg) are as potent on the ground (263 ypg) as they are through the air (277 ypg).
Stick has passed for 2,554 yards and 26 touchdowns and has rushed for 558 yards and 15 scores.
“You have to play a full football game, that’s the only way to beat them,” Farley said. “They’re very talented and can erupt at any time. Stick is as good of a quarterback as there is in college football.”
Forcing NDSU into an uncharacteristic turnover will also be key. NDSU has turned it over nine times in 14 games, including five Stick interceptions and four fumbles.
EWU, which ranks second in takeaways (32), said it is up for the challenge.
The Eagles are 50-0 since 2010 when winning the turnover battle.
“You can’t point out a weakness,” said Schmedding, whose Eagles nearly clipped NDSU two years ago in Fargo in a 50-44 overtime loss. “They take care of the ball, and we gotta get the ball from them.
“If you get takeaways, that will be huge, because they’re going to do what they do, and they do it pretty well. But we’re going to do what we do pretty well, too.”
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