The Gophers and North Dakota State have developed a natural rivalry in recent years, despite NDSU’s Football Championship Subdivision status (formerly Division I-AA). The last time these two teams met was in 2007 and the Bison upset the heavily favored Gophers 27-21. Overall, the Bison have a 1-14 record against Big Ten competition, but that one victory still rings through the state of Minnesota.
“I do know that there’s not a guy on our squad that was offered a scholarship from a Big Ten school. Not one. A bunch of small-town guys from small Minnesota communities,” Bison coach Craig Bohl said.
Bohl has a 63-30 overall record at NDSU, including the win over Minnesota.
A lot of kids recruited to FCS schools grow into strong, capable football players over their years in the subdivision programs and could contribute at the Big Ten level by their junior and senior years.
There is sometimes a chip on the shoulder of subdivision players when they have a chance to play a Football Bowl Series team that didn’t offer them a scholarship out of high school, which could provide extra motivation.
Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill knows this first hand from his days at Southern Illinois, when his team went to Bloomington and beat the Big Ten’s Indiana University.
“North Dakota State has made a living off [recruiting] Minnesota kids for a long time,” Kill said. “There is no room for error in any game we play — any game.”
There are 36 Minnesota natives on NDSU’s roster, including four of its five starting offensive linemen. Minnesota will look to penetrate that offensive line early and often to get pressure on sophomore quarterback Brock Jensen.
Jensen has guided the Bison to a 2-0 mark and has yet to throw an interception. Minnesota will look to get that pressure more consistently from their front four, rather than using blitz packages like last week against Miami (Ohio).
“We had to rely on it too much. The more we pressure, the more we open up for big plays,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
NDSU’s defense has dominated its opponents; it has allowed just nine total points in its two games.
The Bison are ranked first overall in the FCS scoring defense, having only allowed 4.5 points per game, 1.79 yards per carry in rush defense along with 10 sacks and 22 tackles for loss.
They will have a different level of competition when lining up against quarterback MarQueis Gray and power running back Donnell Kirkwood this weekend at TCF Bank Stadium. Gray and Kirkwood combined for 226 yards rushing last week and a touchdown. The duo averaged almost 6 yards per carry.
NDSU’s running game will feature a new face in sophomore Sam Ojuri. Last week he was handed the starting job and ran away with it for a career high 165 yards on only 12 carries, including a 95-yard touchdown run.
The passing game will need to improve for the Gophers as the season progresses. Gray has a completion rate of just more than 50 percent, but the Gophers’ third-down conversion rate is a poor 28 percent.
In situations of third–down-and-seven yards or more, the Gophers have only completed two passes and didn’t pick up a first down. Gray will need to execute when the Gophers are facing third-and-long in order for the team to succeed when it begins the Big Ten schedule.
“We have got to take infant steps. I felt like he was a quarterback [Saturday] and not just up there processing information,” Kill said.
The Gophers will look to continue their new found rushing attack against NDSU, while improving in the passing game.
The Bison will counter with their stalwart defense. They are ranked second in the FCS in total defense, which includes preventing total yards.
Kill warned his team why an FCS school makes a particularly dangerous opponent.
“We have everything to lose,” he said. “They have nothing to lose.”