McFeely: Let’s talk about a real opponent … Eastern Washington

By Mike McFeely

Forum News Service

FARGO — Mississippi Valley State provided the proverbial warm body for North Dakota State’s football team in the season opener at the Fargodome. The Bison won 72-7. And that’s enough about that.

Let’s instead talk about the Bison’s next opponent, Eastern Washington. The Eagles are this season’s biggest non-conference opponent, with another warm body named Robert Morris coming to town in a couple of weeks.

Absent a game against a big-conference opponent like Iowa, Iowa State or Kansas State, NDSU’s game in Cheney, Wash., next Saturday takes on added importance if the Bison hope to attain their usual high seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Too soon to be looking ahead to December? Not at all. The fact is the Bison will have little wiggle room once they enter Missouri Valley Football Conference play because they have two cupcakes on their non-conference schedule, through no fault of their own.

It’s tough to get teams to come to Fargo these days.

Non-conference games can act as resume-builders and beating Mississippi Valley State and Robert Morris won’t do that. There’s no juice there. The game at Eastern Washington will be NDSU’s lone chance to guard against a conference loss, or two, in making a bid for a top seed at the end of the year.

A loss to the Eagles could be devastating to NDSU’s hopes of playing all its games in the Fargodome on the road to Frisco, Texas, and the FCS title game. It’s just unrealistic to believe the Bison are going to go unbeaten through the rugged Missouri Valley. Losing to the Eagles would almost guarantee two losses in the regular season and, gasp, open the door to the possibility of three.

Trying to get Bison head coach Chris Klieman to talk about anything other what is happening in exactly the moment he’s talking is tougher than trying to catch Bison quarterback Easton Stick from behind in the open field. When asked about Eastern Washington in the postgame press conference, Klieman talked for the 47th time about the Mississippi Valley State game being an opportunity to build depth.

Senior linebacker Nick DeLuca was a little better, at least acknowledging the existence of the Eagles.

“We’ve circled them on the calendar. We know what they are capable of,” DeLuca said. “They have a lot of weapons. We’re looking forward to getting back to the game plan.”

The problem with the Eagles, judging by their opener Saturday at Texas Tech, is we aren’t exactly sure what they are capable of. The team that NDSU beat 51-44 in overtime at the dome last year isn’t necessarily the team the Bison will face on the red field in Cheney.

Last year’s team was an offensive machine with quarterback Gage Gubrud and NFL-level receivers like Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill. Gubrud remains, but those three pass-catchers — and head coach Beau Baldwin — are all gone.

The new coach is Aaron Best and his debut was a trainwreck, a 56-10 loss at Texas Tech. The Eagles looked incapable of making big plays on offense, while not being able to prevent them on defense.

Yes, Texas Tech is a Big 12 team. But it’s not a football program known for playing stellar defense. Gubrud passed for only 207 yards and Eastern Washington had just 302 total yards. The fewest points the Eagles scored in 14 games last season was 31. They had eight games with more than 40 points.

The Bison will get Eastern Washington’s best shot. The Eagles are not just a warm body. But it’s likely NDSU will be ready to go, too, given the importance of the game and the two cupcakes on either side.