*Photo by Hilary Ehlen (2019)
North Dakota State went into the Alerus Center and stifled the University of North Dakota for a 16–10 win in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener for both teams. The game was a defensive slugfest, with the Bison using two key, dramatic, fourth down stops to end UND’s 12-game home winning streak. In a head-scratcher of a call, UND opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 at its own 20-yard line with seven minutes left in the third quarter. The Herd stuffed a run for no gain, and then settled for a chip shot field goal to take a 9-7 lead. With 5:53 left in the contest, and the Bison clinging to that same two-point lead, UND tried a reverse on 4th-and-2. Again, the NDSU defense stopped the Fighting Hawks short.
The Bison offense did its part after the second fourth down stop. The Herd put together their best offensive drive of the afternoon, going 58 yards on 8 plays, with Hunter Luepke bulldozing the Fighting Hawks into the red zone. The drive culminated with a 3-yard Quincy Patterson touchdown run that all but put the game out of reach.
You wouldn’t know it, though, reading through the comments on social media. Bison fans were apoplectic on everything from the passing game to the play-calling. Forget that the Herd improved to 4–0, notched a Top 10 win on the road against a playoff team from last spring, deprived UND of that signature win over NDSU they’ve been so desperately seeking, and a defensive performance that was worthy of the ’85 Chicago Bears. No, for some fans, nothing short of a 49–0 victory would have sufficed. To those fans, please, just stop. Enjoy a hard-earned win against a very good opponent. You don’t have to like the University of North Dakota. But get off the high horse and recognize they aren’t the punch and cupcake versions of themselves that got rolled by the Bison in their first three Division I contests.
“It was about as fun of a game as I can remember playing,” said NDSU senior linebacker Jackson Hankey. Hankey, who hails from Park River, North Dakota, grew up in the shadow of both schools. He’s also one of the Bison team captains. “The place was packed. They were loud. It made for a really fun atmosphere.”
Make no mistake, the folks in kelly green and white were amped up, and are amped up, trying to will this game to the former iconic rivalry it once was under larger-than-life figures like Rocky Hager and Roger Thomas. They yearn for the Cold War era of this series, the Football America documentary days. The Alerus Center had the vibe of the Fargodome from a few years back when Bison fans turned it into the best home-field advantage in college football. Jeff Kolpack from the Fargo Forum overtook Mike McFeely, even if only temporarily, as the arch-villain of NDSU fandom for tweeting during the game that the, “Bison have never played in front of a crowd like this in the Division I era.” While post-pandemic crowds, and less than stellar opponents, have accounted for a lack of sellouts this fall at the Fargodome, Bison fans have shown a malaise of sorts in recent years. You don’t have to believe me, but believe the numbers.
Look at the 2019 playoffs. NDSU was on fire that fall, entering the postseason 12 – 0. The Bison had three guys on the roster who would go on to be taken in the NFL Draft: Trey Lance, Dillon Radunz, and Jabril Cox, along with a host of others who, arguably, comprised one of the greatest teams in program history. The second round playoff game against No. 19 Nicholls drew 15,690. The next weekend, in a 9–3 quarterfinal rock fight against No. 13 Illinois State, attendance dropped to 14,132. It took a semifinal game and a trip to Frisco on the line for Bison Nation to finally show up, as 18,077 fans watched Lance put on a dazzling display of playmaking that helped catapult him to the No. 3 overall pick in said NFL Draft, as the Bison trounced No. 5 Montana State 42–14. It seems that fire from Bison fans has moved from the blue seats of the Dome to the red hot takes on social media.
We’ve seen this movie before, by the way, if Bison fans are tempted to take anything for granted. NDSU puts together one of the greatest runs in college football history in the 1980s, winning five national championships in eight years (’83, ’85, ’86, ’88, and ’90). The Herd added two national runner-up finishes during that run as well (’81 and ’84). This lit a blazing fire under the program to the north on I-29, and they scratched, clawed, and scrapped to relevancy in the latter Division II days. You can also look south on I-29, where a once irrelevant South Dakota State program sprang to prominence as they grew sick and tired of the juggernaut in Fargo. Any win over UND or SDSU is a good win worthy of celebrating. I don’t care if it’s by one point, or 31 points. Any win over UND or SDSU keeps those two would-be usurpers in their places. You have no idea how demoralizing it is to their coaches, players, and fan bases when NDSU beats them, again and again and again, particularly at home. You want to keep those two programs in check, and the fires dormant. Just win, baby, by any means necessary.
Fans in Grand Forks or Brookings would do backflips for a single national championship, or the type of national notoriety and publicity the Bison get. For whatever reason, being good, as in really, really good–to the point of winning eight of the last ten national titles–isn’t seemingly good enough anymore for some elements of the NDSU fan base. The armchair coaching and ill-tempered comments from sites with names like “#1 NDSU Bison Fans” makes about as much sense as Bubba Schweigert’s fourth down decision making. Since when did beating a rival require a 20-point thrashing to be enjoyable.
So I’ll leave you with this, friends. Style points don’t win games, and they don’t win conference or national championships. NDSU is 4–0. UND is 2–2. NDSU is also 2–0 against UND since last March. I don’t know about you, but that brings a big ear-to-ear smile to my face that no amount of style points can erase. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!