So we’ve come to the end of Chris Klieman’s first regular season as head coach of the North Dakota State Bison. And if I do say so myself, things don’t look too shabby. The Bison finished 11-1 (with yet another win over an FBS school, this time Iowa State). Moreover, this isn’t exactly a case of a championship roster remaining intact while only the Head Coach changes. In truth while the players can all be accredited to Bohl in large part, this team is largely devoid of myriad key starters from the 3-peat teams Bohl put together. The star, starting quarterback, Brock Jensen, is gone along with Marcus Williams and Billy Turner (now with the Jets and Dolphins respectively) starting running back Sam Ojuri, star linebacker Grant Olson, go to receiver Ryan Smith, and a veritable cornucopia of other guys. So while Bohl certainly didn’t leave the cupboards bare, it was up to Klieman to build a new title contender out of these parts. The “team” of Bohl was certainly not left intact.
So all in all I’m quite pleased with Klieman’s 11-1 record. The one loss came against UNI which, although not excusable, is at least understandable considering the circumstances. UNI plays NDSU tough every single year. Although they aren’t always sitting at the top of the division they always play NDSU tough. Indeed, they might have, historically, the best football program in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (the best FCS conference by far). Since 1985 (the year the MVFC began playing football again) UNI has won 16!!! conference titles. The next highest total by any school? 5. And while NDSU has won 4 titles running, they’re still newcomers to the league by UNIs standards, and UNI just wants to remind us of that on occasion.
So anyway, its incredibly hard to play AT UNI and this year we couldn’t pull off the win unfortunately. O’well. As much as I wanted Klieman to get an undefeated season during his first year as coach, he’s still 11-1 and split the conference title with Illinois State (also a 1 loss team with, guess who… UNI as their only loss). Now, while this kindof freaks me out as an aside (Klieman’s alma mater is UNI, and if we’re gonna lost to them it makes me worry that, if the job ever came open, Klieman would leave the Bison to return to his hometown of Waterloo Iowa) even though it probably shouldn’t (Mark Farley is only 51, and also a UNI guy so unless an FBS job comes calling he’ll probably be there another 10 years) none of this changes the fact that Klieman appears to have been the right choice for this job.
However, all isn’t quite perfect in paradise. First and foremost, regular season wins and conference titles are fantastic, but what I think all Bison Football fans want is that fourth straight title. No school in FCS history has every won 4 straight, and as a protest to our backwards thinking boosters at NDSU who wouldn’t allow the school to go to the FBS when we had the chance in 2004, I’d love to be the first school to achieve this. So while I don’t mean to downplay what Klieman has done so far, really he hasn’t done anything yet. I realize thats an incredibly unfair way to judge a new headcoach (win a national title in your first year or you suck) its just kindof the way I think about it.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the team hasn’t always looked right this season. Under Bohl the team was the absolute picture of discipline and execution. NDSU never made stupid mistakes. Rarely committed penalties and helped the other team, and simply put their nose to the ground, ran the ball, and ground their opponents into flour (yay! Farm Jokes!!).
This year, however, the Bison just look off. On offense they can still grind opponents down with 6 yard rush followed by 5 yard rush, followed by 15 yard rush. Its the same formula. However, it feels like every third play they O line will hold, or false start, or something that erases the play and sets the team back. This was the formula that got us the L at Northern Iowa. Now, it didn’t result in repeated losses this year (obviously) and it didn’t even seem to slow the team down (of their 11 wins, 7 of them were by 20 points or more, INCLUDING the Iowa State win). NDSU still seems to dominate people, much the way Mississippi State was playing earlier this season. They were both just so much more talented and better than their opponents that they were constantly able to make stupid plays and mistakes and not just get the win in spite of this, but DOMINATE their opponents in spite of this.
However, when you run into a disciplined team, as was the case when NDSU squared off against UNI, things don’t look so peachy. As far as talent is concerned the Bison are clearly still the best team in FCS, and honestly a veeeery good team by FBS standards (Sagarin has them ranked #37 right now ahead of neighboring powers like Minnesota and Iowa) but the execution terrifies me.
If you can screw it up during the regular season against a UNI team that finished 8-4, what happens when you start playing the best teams in the FCS during the playoffs. Like I already said, we all want this 4th title, but stupid mistakes me keep it out of our hands, and may rob us of an opportunity that I doubt will ever come again (a chance to win 4 straight).
Moreover, this whole issue of discipline really confuses me because I don’t see Klieman as an undisciplined coach. He knows how to run a program and has been a part of a winning one for a long time now. He learned under Bohl and is somewhat of a hand picked successor to him (although Bohl wanted Klieman to head to Wyoming with him rather than become head coach at NDSU, which only speaks to how important and skilled Klieman really is).Maybe its just youth. Like we already discussed NDSU lost more seniors off last years team than the number of pairs of glasses Velma lost on Scooby Doo’s 50 year run on television.
Young teams make mistakes and that’s fine. If this is what a young Klieman team looks like, where they make tons of mistakes but are physically dominant most of the time, then I can’t wait for us to figure it out and get back to our disciplined ways. It scares me that this team didn’t seem to learn its lesson after the Northern Iowa loss though. You would think losing their 33 game win streak would have been enough to snap some sense into them, but even last Saturday in the Youngstown State game, a game they dominated and their last chance at a tune up before the playoffs start, they were STILL making all kinds of mental mistakes and stupid decisions throughout the game. This really terrifies me heading into the playoffs where all the teams are good.
With all that said, however, I just worry that this year’s playoff run represents a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we aren’t going to be allowed to compete in the FBS, then this is really what I have going for me. I hope the players all understand that this is the kind of opportunity that never comes again and they get their act together for the playoff run. They already cost themselves homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with that one loss, dropping themselves from the #1 overall seed to #2. They’ve given themselves an uphill battle in every game this year, and now its carried over to their path to a title. It didn’t have to be this hard, but they made it this way. I just hope with the added pressure of playoff season and the chance to make history, they don’t crack under the weight. I hope we prove that NDSU football is a program, not just a coach. I think it IS a program of dominance and Klieman and this crop of guys ARE every bit as good as their predecessors. Now I just hope they prove that to the rest of the world and go make history.