Bison head to Illinois State with a chance to win Valley football title outright
FARGO—There's been the hopscotch of dealing with injuries to key players, which North Dakota State has had its share. There's been the constant attention of five or six Missouri Valley Football Conference teams ranked in the top 25 FCS polls.
There was the fall-back from failing to win the Dakota Marker for a second straight year, followed by last week's resurgent running game and a 49-14 convincing defeat of the University of South Dakota.
Through it all, NDSU heads into its regular-season finale at Illinois State with the following nugget on its plate: A win and the Bison can claim sole possession of the Valley title. The Bison are 6-1 in the Valley and 9-1 overall. South Dakota State and Northern Iowa are a game back at 5-2. If successful, it would be NDSU's third outright MVFC title. The Bison have won at least a share of seven consecutive league championships.
"It's a big emphasis," said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman. "We're excited we at least have a share of it. But we know what's at stake and to be able to win it outright, which is really difficult and doesn't happen a lot in this league, is really important to these seniors."
And perhaps more important, it would set the Bison up as a higher-seeded team when the FCS playoff bracket is announced Sunday morning. The Redbirds are in a different boat. At 6-4 overall, they probably need a victory to reach postseason.
"This is a big game against a team that probably needs to win to have an opportunity to make the playoffs," Klieman said. "So it will be a playoff atmosphere."
It was a playoff atmosphere of sorts last Saturday against USD. For the second straight week, the Bison faced an up-tempo, no-huddle offense with the Coyotes running it at an even faster clip than SDSU did the previous week.
It wasn't as though the Bison waited until last week to prepare for it. The defensive staff spent a few days in the offseason at Clemson, with the Tigers volunteering information, drills and practice clips on what they do to prepare for those offenses.
Klieman did the same at Georgia. The connection came through his speaking engagements at clinics at both schools.
"They were really receptive because I think they respect what we've done here as a program," Klieman said. "And we're just asking those guys in the SEC or ACC, 'How do you defend the fast-pace, no-huddle offenses?' They've been great to us. That's the nice thing to see when you reach out to somebody and they have no problem sharing those things."
In what has become almost a weekly issue, the Bison will head to Illinois State with some injury questions. Backup cornerback Dom Davis is out with a groin injury. Wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (hamstring) and offensive guard Austin Kuhnert (knee) are questionable with Shepherd appearing to have the better chance at playing.
Linebacker Levi Jordheim, who was hurt in the SDSU game, is doubtful with a knee problem.