McFeely: This version of Bison better than last year’s

FARGO — University of San Diego coach Dale Lindsey has seen a few things in nearly 50 years of coaching football from high schools to the NFL and everything in between. So losing a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game decisively to North Dakota State, as expected, probably doesn’t rank near the top of biggest disappointments in his career.
But still, it’s not every day you see a coach whose team just lost 38-3 walk into a postgame press conference with a bemused grin on his face. That’s what the 74-year-old Lindsey did Saturday evening, Dec. 2, at the Fargodome.
Let’s just say you’re not going to see Northern Iowa’s Mark Farley or South Dakota State’s John Stiegelmeier smiling after losing to the Bison. Call Lindsey’s expression a smirk of resignation. Or acceptance. The inevitable happened and there wasn’t much the Toreros were going to be able to do about it.
“I told coach Chris that this year’s (Bison) team was better than last year. He wholeheartedly agreed,” Lindsey said. “I think they played that way. We had great respect for North Dakota State before we came in here, and we have even more when we leave.”
Coach Chris would be Klieman, NDSU’s boss. And while the coaches disagreed on where the Bison are better than a year ago — Lindsey said offense, Klieman said defense — the NDSU coach didn’t dispute Lindsey’s overall theme: These Bison are better than the 2016 squad that reached the playoff semifinals before losing 27-17 to James Madison.
This is probably not the news the other teams on the Bison’s side of the bracket wanted to hear. James Madison’s victory at the dome a year ago gave a flicker of hope to FCS teams from Huntsville, Texas, to Jacksonville, Ala., to Spartanburg, S.C., that perhaps they could mosey into Fargo and pull off a victory.
They still can, of course, but Lindsey believes it might be easier believed than done.
“I think their run game is better, particularly their running back,” Lindsey said of NDSU’s Bruce Anderson, who gained 112 rugged yards against the undersized Toreros defense. “I was very impressed by the way he ran over us, he ran through us and made a few guys not want to tackle him. I thought he was really good. They’ve always had monster-sized guys up front. This is the Alabama of the FCS and they are extremely good on both sides of the ball. But I thought their run game today was particularly tough for us to handle.”
Funny thing is, those who watch the Bison regularly believe NDSU’s defense is a notch or three above where it was a year ago simply because it is much healthier and deeper than the patchwork squad that limped into the postseason last December. Nose tackle Nate Tanguay, linebacker Nick DeLuca and linebacker Jabril Cox were game-changers on the field against San Diego. None of them played a snap in the playoffs last year, Tanguay and DeLuca because of injury.
Tanguay looked like his old self Saturday, living in the backfield, and DeLuca used his size and speed to punish.
“On defense we are,” Klieman said when asked if his team is better than a year ago. “On defense for sure we are, because of Nate and Nick and Jabril. We have a lot more depth on the defensive line. We were rotating three defensive tackles last year, now we’re rotating five guys. On defense for sure we’re better. We’ll find out offensively. We’re more explosive offensively, we weren’t as consistent as we want to be.”
NDSU’s milquetoast second quarter offense is probably just enough to give Bison fans who’ve already made their plans for Frisco, Texas, heartburn. Quarterback Easton Stick didn’t look sharp in missing five of six passes and NDSU sort of nodded off for 15 minutes. But Anderson, running back Ty Brooks — and Stick’s dynamic ability to run — cured those ills in the third quarter.
Next up is Wofford College in a playoff quarterfinal at the dome. Based in Spartanburg, it’s a tiny private school with a smaller enrollment (1,700 students) than Concordia College in Moorhead. The Terriers will be a stiff test for the Bison, because they run a rare triple-option offense and a physical defense. Longtime head coach Mike Ayers knows what he’s doing.
The last time Wofford came to Fargo was 2012 and a very good Bison team struggled to win 14-7. You can expect a similar, ball-control dogfight next Saturday.
But make no mistake. A Bison loss would be an upset of the first order. Just ask San Diego’s coach.