BROOKINGS, S.D.-Losses are rare for the North Dakota State football team. Losses when the Bison get outplayed and outcoached in every facet of the game are even rarer. After losing to South Dakota State on Saturday, Nov. 4, in fact, you can count those games on two fingers.
Not two hands. Two fingers.
That ain't no lie. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the start of NDSU's nearly unbeatable run, the Bison have been beaten decisively two times in the course of 98 games. The first came in 2014 when Northern Iowa beat the Bison 23-3 in Cedar Falls. The second was the Jackrabbits' 33-21 victory at the sparkling Football Championship Subdivision venue that is Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. The Dakota Marker rivalry trophy will stay in Brookings.
This was a clunker for the Bison and there's no other way to state it. Whether or not it means anything in the bigger picture of shooting for a return trip to Frisco, Texas, and the FCS title game is a matter of perspective.
But on this day ... kerplunk.
"We were not very good executing on offense. We were not very good executing on defense. And we had too many penalties in the special teams game," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said.
You could add that SDSU's coaching staff had a better game plan, both offensively and defensively. The Jackrabbit defense, shredded by the running games of Youngstown State and Northern Iowa, held the mighty Bison ground game to 108 yards on a measly 27 carries. It also forced NDSU into five-count 'em, five-turnovers. That includes three interceptions and a fumble by quarterback Easton Stick, who was outplayed badly by his SDSU counterpart Taryn Christion.
The Bison defense, meanwhile, couldn't get off the field when it mattered, particularly late in the first half after a crucial Stick interception or in the fourth quarter after NDSU cut SDSU's lead to 27-21. The Bison didn't have an answer for Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and, to a lesser extent, receiver Jake Wieneke-not that many teams do.
"I'm not going to get into 'do we have to do this or do that with the offense or defense,'" Klieman said. "It's one game. It's a big game because it's the marker game, but by no means is our season all of the sudden in jeopardy. All of our goals, everything we have, is in front of us."
Well, yes. In winning five national championships, the Bison only went unbeaten one time. But for the Bison to look so, well, human was the difference here.
Stick looked confused and indecisive much of the afternoon, often forcing throws where there didn't seem to be much daylight. He did some good things with his feet, running effectively on an impressive drive in the first quarter that made it seem as if the Bison were going to do their usual hammer job on the Jackrabbit defense.
But a Stick fumble in the third quarter led to a touchdown that gave SDSU a 24-14 lead, soon after the Bison had trimmed it three points.
"Ultimately we turned the ball over too many times," Stick said. "Turnovers are what got us today."
Klieman almost seemed to play pop psychologist for Bison fans in his postgame press conference. As the media asked questions trying to figure out what led to such a performance, the coach delivered the speech he gives about once a season.
"We're going to lose a football game now and then. I know that's like a novel thing here. But you know what? Other teams are pretty good, too. They had a pretty good plan and they beat us today," Klieman said. "I will never say our kids didn't have fire, didn't have energy. Son of a gun, we've won like a hundred games in the decade. We are fine. We didn't play well today. It's not because the kids weren't fired up. They had a good plan and they executed better than we did."
That's the deal. When you win 100 games since the start of the 2010 season, the expectations go through the clouds. And when you only have two games in seven seasons in which you're clearly outplayed, there is a search for answers.
If the Bison can't find them in the next two weeks against South Dakota and Illinois State, there will be more questions. Such is the life of a team that rarely loses, and even more rarely doesn't play well.