Success in sports, no matter how prolonged it may be, is not permanent. Whether it ends in a screeching halt and an explosion of sudden failure or a slow sputter that eventually leaves a fanbase wondering where it all went wrong, there is almost always a single instance that can be pointed to to identify the beginning of the end. That instance may very well have just happened for one of the greatest dynasties in college athletics.
The North Dakota State Bison, it seems, are not what they once were.
When the clock hit zeros in the Alerus Center last Saturday afternoon and North Dakota Fighting Hawks fans poured onto the field in a rush of excitement, it was not only a benchmark for what was arguably the biggest win in recent program history for UND but also perhaps the start of the downfall for the best dynasty that FCS football has ever seen.
The Bison, who usually don’t lose games at all, had just dropped their second one this season and we are just halfway through. Even more surprising than the 49-24 result (the largest margin of defeat for NDSU since 2005), though, was the way in which it happened.
North Dakota State has won nine FCS titles on the back a vaunted rushing attack, stellar quarterback play and a smothering defense that knows how to choke out its opponents in a way that, quite frankly, crushes their will. From year to year, coach to coach and player to player, that has been the Bison way for the past decade plus. Last weekend, however, all of what NDSU has been known for was on the other sideline.
We've seen blowout losses before but it's been rare and the conditions have been way different. In last year’s FCS championship game, South Dakota State blasted NDSU on the biggest stage to end the Bison’s streak never losing in Frisco. That team had lost guys to injury and the transfer portal weeks before, though. Losing that particular game to the best squad in the country (who still hasn’t lost since September of last year) was not a total shock. In 2021’s makeshift spring season, Southern Illinois trounced North Dakota State 38-14 in Carbondale but all of the COVID caveats that plagued the scene back then were alive and well.
This one felt different. North Dakota did what no one else really has up to this point; they took the Bison will to fight completely away and buried it. The game was still within reach at halftime and, even though they trailed by 18, the idea that NDSU would make one of its signature rallies was there in the back of everyone’s mind. It was not a new spot. In last year’s semifinals they clawed back from a 16-0 deficit against a high-powered Incarnate Word squad. Heck, even in the loss against South Dakota last month, the Bison buckled down and only allowed three second-half points. They were knocking at the door when that contest ended.
This time, however, it didn’t happen. There was no rally nor was there any sign of one in the second half. UND stepped on their collective neck and never gave them an ounce of hope. That should give fans in Fargo great pause.
Now at two losses already and with South Dakota State still looming on the schedule it’s very likely that NDSU won’t even be a seed in this year’s playoffs when they come around. The last time that happened was 2010. The Bison have not had to play a road playoff game (exlcluding the spring season in ‘21) since that same year. Their #14 ranking in the national media poll is the lowest its been in nearly 13 seasons.
The truth is, in spite of these troubling trends, Matt Entz still has a postseason team on his hands and the Bison will still hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Cam Miller is a good quarterback and Cole Payton has been a breath of excitement. Tamerik Williams is a solid running back and Eli Mostaert is an NFL-bound stud on defense. Individual talent is still very prevalent on this team but there is not greatness right now. There is not a sense of inevitability with this program as there once was. They are good but that's it.
In all likelihood, North Dakota State takes its frustrations out on winless Western Illinois this weekend. They will probably make a decent run in the playoffs but when the chips are down and there comes a December road trip to Brookings, Bozeman, Greenville or Sacramento... then what happens? For the first time in what feels like forever, it seems as though the road may end before Texas and if it does the results could be ugly.
After losing the title game last year, NDSU got hit and hit hard by the transfer portal. Nine players left for other programs during the 2023 cycles. The first real taste of defeat came at a cost and that cost might be even greater this time around. The region’s recruiting battle is in jeopardy of swaying further to the side of South Dakota State or even UND. There’s a lot at stake over the next two months.
Of course there is still plenty of ball to be played between now and January but, as it stands, the sun seems as though it may be starting to set in Fargo.