Carson Wentz, Easton Stick and Trey Lance have left the Fargodome.
The trio comprises a string of North Dakota State quarterbacks that has helped build a Football Championship Subdivision dynasty claiming eight of the past nine national titles. Wentz plays for the Indianapolis Colts, Stick with the Los Angeles Chargers. Lance is a top-tier NFL draft prospect.
The Bison (6-2), who host Eastern Washington (5-1) in the first round of the winter/spring FCS playoffs Saturday, have recently relied on senior Zeb Noland and youngster Cam Miller, a true freshman who played in last week’s 27-17 loss to rival South Dakota State after Noland with down with an early injury.
Miller might get his first career start against the Eagles. No matter who is behind center at the limited-capacity Fargodome this weekend, it won’t be a quarterback nearly as dynamic as NDSU’s three previous stalwarts.
Not yet, anyway.
Sixth-ranked NDSU is playing without several of its key components from its 2019 national title team. Players have entered the transfer portal, opted out of the spring season to enter the NFL draft or are battling an injury. NDSU isn’t the talent-heavy team it typically is, considering the circumstances.
But the Bison, facing an eighth-ranked EWU program they defeated 38-24 in the 2018 FCS national title game, are still pretty darn good.
“I wouldn’t call them vulnerable because they lost more games in the spring than they’re used to. It makes them more hungry.” EWU head coach Aaron Best said.
NDSU isn’t as efficient through the air (136 yards per game), struggles on third down (38 for 97) and ranks 84th in turnover margin. Its defense isn’t quite as lights out (303 ypg) as its lofty standard, but the Bison still possess three of their normal powers that could propel them to a ninth national title game since 2011: physical play, confidence and a control-the-clock rushing attack (202 yards a game).
Its typically gargantuan offensive line has holes due to injuries and inexperience but is still capable of putting smaller defensive lines on skates.
If the Eagles, who are 1-3 against NDSU in their previous meetings dating to 2010, want to advance to quarterfinals, they will need not to get bullied by a stable of running backs, including bruiser Hunter Luepke (88 yards per game, five touchdowns).
EWU’s run- depleted defense had some struggles this season, including the 278 rushing yards it yielded in a win over Idaho last week.
It surrendered 218 yards the previous week in a win against a ranked UC Davis team.
In August, before EWU knew it would inevitably not play in the fall, the Eagles’ defensive line was a big question mark. Things got shakier after injuries and departures.
Returning starting nose tackle Keith Moore entered the transfer portal late last year, defensive end Jusstis Warren sustained what appeared to be a season-ending injury in Week 1, standout linebacker Chris Ojoh entered the transfer portal last month and Ty Graham, another starting linebacker, sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.
The lone remaining linebacker with substantial experience, Jack Sendelbach, who had 13 tackles as a freshman against the Bison in a 40-13 loss in 2017, knows the challenge ahead.
If NDSU runs the ball like it did against the stout defenses of the Missouri Valley Conference, it could keep EWU’s top-ranked offense (562 ypg) off the field.
All-American quarterback Eric Barriere leads a balanced, quick-hit EWU attack with 2,193 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. If the Eagles are going to get the most out of the Walter Payton Award candidate, they will need to keep NDSU from sustaining long drives.
“They’re still a great team, regardless of what people think,” Sendelbach said.” They have two spring losses, but they’re still a championship- caliber team.”
Southern Illinois found that recipe and forced NDSU to pass with its then-inexperienced air attack in the Salukis’ 38-14 win over the Bison, a game in which the Fargo school totaled a paltry 268 yards.
“On defense, I think what gives us a fighting chance is how tough we are,” Graham said on Sunday before officially learning he had a tear in his knee.
EWU appears to have the tools to have the ball on NDSU, which may rely on its offense as its best defense against the explosive Eagles.
If the Bison go with the young Miller at quarterback, it adds another wrinkle to the Bison ground attack.
“Cam provides us with the ability to do some of the quarterback run game,” NDSU coach Matt Entz said.
“You do force people to defend a little bit (differently).”
NDSU hasn’t lost its final regular-season game since 2010, the year EWU clipped the Bison 38-31 in dramatic fashion in Cheney. The Eagles went on to win a national title.
Eagles, Vandals honored
The schedule may have been short in EWU’s truncated football seasons, but the Big Sky’s all-conference lists were long for the Eagles.
The Big Sky, which saw eight of its 13 football members pursue a rare campaign, named EWU quarterback Eric Barriere (2,193 passing yards, 18 touchdowns) offensive player of the year. He was named preseason MVP in August when all 13 teams were gearing up for a fall schedule that was postponed.
EWU, which features an offense ranked No. 1 in the country (562 yards per game), also saw running back Tamarick Pierce (447 rushing yards, four touchdowns), receiver Talolo Limu-Jones (721 yards, four touchdowns) and offensive tackle Tristen Taylor named first-team selections.
Other Eagles honored include defensive end Mitch Johnson (first team), safety Anthany Smith (first team), kicker Seth Harrison (second team), receiver Freddie Roberson (second team), offensive lineman Wyatt Musser (second team) and defensive back Tre Weed (second team).
Idaho, which finished with a 2-4 mark, was paced by its defense in first-team linebackers Tre Walker (13.5 tackles per game) and Christian Elliss (10 tackles per game).
Defensive backs Tyrese Dedmon and Jalen Hoover were named to the second team.
Hayden Hatten (first-team receiver), Logan Kendall (first-team tight end) led Idaho’s offensive honorees. Nick Romano (second-team returner) and Cade Coffey (second-team punter) were also recognized.
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