IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa football team is well aware of North Dakota State’s resume and reputation.
“They beat five FBS teams back-to-back,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “Like I said, it doesn’t really matter. These guys are ready to play football.”
The Bison are an FBS buster. As an FCS team, North Dakota State is better at beating FBS opponents than some Big Ten squads. They didn’t face an FBS opponent last season, but defeated Iowa State, Kansas State, Colorado State, Minnesota and Kansas from 2010-2015.
The Bison know how to beat a team like the Hawkeyes. They put together a blueprint, using it time and again to knock of Big 12 and Mountain West conference teams.
Here is what Iowa must do to bust the Bison blueprint:
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
North Dakota State reminds Iowa of a Big Ten team. That’s not by accident. The Bison win by playing a style of football that, frankly, isn’t all that different from Iowa. The most important factor for North Dakota State in these upsets is playing smart. That starts with winning the turnover margin.
Coaches started preaching about turnovers at about the exact minute the game was invented. It is one of the biggest keys to success. It’s proven to be vital for the Bison, who are 4-0-1 in turnover margin against the FBS. North Dakota State is plus-6 in this category.
The Bison are very good at protecting the football. Take a look at their quarterback play. North Dakota State has only two interceptions in the five games. The opposition has eight.
The biggest thing Iowa can do with the turnover margin is make sure it doesn’t do something to hand this category over to the Bison. That means quarterback C.J. Beathard must keep doing what he’s done since the start of 2015. He’s tossed only five interceptions in 410 attempts over his last 16 games.
“We’ve played pretty clean football for the most part,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve done a pretty good job taking care of the ball.”
Stop in the name of run defense
Like Iowa, North Dakota State wants to control the game with its rushing attack. The Bison are adept at grinding down an opponent with their offensive line and running game. Three times North Dakota State out-rushed its opponents and averaged 181.2 rushing yards per FBS win.
This stat is taking on added importance importance in recent years. North Dakota State churned out 302 rushing yards against Iowa State in 2014 and 215 rushing yards against Kansas State in 2013.
The Bison will look to play smash-mouth football. Iowa must be strong at the point of attack to counter a rushing attack led by quarterback Easton Stick and running back Lance Dunn. The two have combined for 283 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Slowing down the North Dakota State rushing attack can limit its offensive success. Stopping it can neuter it.
“Quarterback to running back those guys are tremendous athletes,” Johnson said. “Protecting them is a great offensive line. I think the challenge right now is controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Run, Iowa, run
North Dakota State wins games up front. It’s a time-tested formula, one Iowa likes to rely on too. The Bison are good at making an opponent one-dimensional. Typically, that results in them stopping the run. In four of their five wins they’ve held the opponent to 102 rushing yards or less. That’s a great day for any defense. It’s especially impressive for an FCS outfit.
Running the ball isn’t a problem for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are averaging 205.0 yards per game. Uncertainty surrounds running back Akrum Wadley and his knee, but the other half of Iowa’s running back tandem, LeShun Daniels, and the offensive line will be ready to go.
If Iowa can establish its ground game like in its first two games it would deliver a significant blow to North Dakota State’s upset chances.
“We’ve been running the ball well,” Iowa center Lucas LeGrand said. “We’ve been passing the ball well, blocking well, everything. We’ve been doing pretty well. We’ve been watching a lot of tape on the teams we have been playing. Knowing them pretty well also has been helping. As a unit, we’ve been playing well.”
Timing is everything
North Dakota makes plays when it needs to. It shouldn’t be a surprise a team with five straight FCS national titles knows how to win games.
The Bison consistently outplay their FBS foes in the second half, outscoring opponents 49-24. They’ve only allowed seven fourth-quarter points in five games and three times didn’t allow a point in the second half.
After halftime, North Dakota State figures out what it must do to win and executes it.
Going into intermission in a tight game with the Bison was not a winning proposition in the past for FBS teams.
Iowa is outscoring opponents 35-3 in the first quarter. The best thing Iowa can do is get off to a fast start and not give North Dakota State the chance to sniff out an upset. The earlier a favorite can establish dominance and put away an underdog the better. The longer North Dakota State stays in the game the more likely it becomes that the Bison believe they can pull off the upset.
Taking advantage of the situation
A football team needs to score when in position to get points. Ideally, it’s a touchdown. North Dakota State consistently gives itself chances to score. Twenty-nine times the Bison got inside the opponent 40-yard line. Their foes only did it 17 times.
Now, North Dakota State is not as efficient as it could be with those scoring chances, getting points only 17 times. Only nine times did it find the end zone, but the Bison did give themselves scoring chances. More is better and the volume helped in the wins.
Ideally, Iowa limits the number of times North Dakota State gets in a spot where it can score a touchdown. When the Bison are threatening the Hawkeyes need to ensure they do what they’ve done too much of — settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.