Bison avoid errors, finds end zone under Messingham

FRISCO, Texas — It didn’t take long for the entire North Dakota State offense to realize new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham meant business with turnovers. One of the Bison backs fumbled the football at one of the first workouts in spring football of 2017, and that meant it was time to run.
Every offensive player had to run.
The offensive linemen were puzzled at the thought of paying the price for one player’s fumble. Then one of them pulled a hamstring. At that point, Messingham looked at veteran offensive line coach Conor Riley, who backed up Messingham’s methodology.
“He said, ‘That’s what we do,'” Messingham said.
What the Bison offense has done under Messingham heading into Saturday’s NCAA Division I FCS title game against Eastern Washington is take its production to another level. The Bison are averaging 41.7 points per game. At 7.43 yards per play, they’re on pace for a school season record in that category. They have already set single-season records for most rushing touchdowns in a season (51), points scored (584) and total touchdowns (80).
Those three are also Missouri Valley Football Conference records.
“I felt like as the season has gone along, we continued to figure out how to use more pieces of the puzzle,” Messingham said.
The tight ends got more involved into the offense. The running backs have always been a source of production. But perhaps the most telling piece of the puzzle, especially compared to last year, is receiver Darrius Shepherd.
He didn’t get his first touchdown last year until the title game win against James Madison. This season, he has 57 receptions for 940 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Shep kind of blew up,” Messingham said. “This year he has been a big part of the offense the whole year when it comes to scoring points.”
Shepherd moved into second place in career receptions at NDSU with 183, which is 12 behind leader Zach Vraa.
“I think coach Mess has done an incredible job of getting plays called that let us be successful and do our thing,” Shepherd said. “We have a lot of dynamic playmakers.”
A stat that Messingham probably pays attention to the most, however, is turnover margin. NDSU is second in the FCS at a plus-18, which is also fourth-best in Missouri Valley history. The Bison haven’t turned it over more than once in any one game this season and committed just one turnover in the first three playoff games.
NDSU’s nine turnovers lost are the second fewest in Missouri Valley history since 1990.
Turnovers are always the first topic brought up in offensive meetings the Friday night before games.
“It’s about the ball,” Messingham said. “We have to be good with the ball.”
That was not only a message during his first spring football, but pretty much any practice since he’s been in Fargo. Messingham came to NDSU after one year at Montana State. He spent 10 years at the FBS level before that at Indiana, Iowa State and Southern Mississippi.
He was a college teammate of head coach Chris Klieman at Northern Iowa and the two coached together at Missouri State in 1999.
When former offensive coordinator Tim Polasek left for an assistant position at Iowa after the 2016 season, Klieman turned to his old friend.
“Probably the biggest thing you don’t realize until you get here is how well the players hold each other accountable,” Messingham said. “They understand the standard. They call each other out when it’s not getting done the right way and that as coaches makes it easier for us.”
And that means when somebody fumbles, everybody runs.
“It’s a big point of emphasis, you have to take care of the ball to win games and turnover margin is huge,” Shepherd said. “In practice, we definitely put an emphasis on it and if you’re fumbling the ball, you’re going to pay.”