NORMAL, Ill. -- James Robinson is good. Really good. Next-level good. But as the Illinois State senior running back and his teammates learned, beating North Dakota State takes more than just one player looking like he's auditioning for the NFL.
And the Redbirds don't have them.
That might be the question most asked as the Football Championship Subdivision season grinds on.
Who will be able to match up to the Bison?
This sounds familiar, even in a year when it wasn't supposed to be this way. This Bison team is young, we opined. They will make mistakes, we believed. There will be bumps in the road, we said.
But if NDSU's 37-3 beatdown of No. 10-ranked Illinois State is any indication of what the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the FCS have to look forward to, 2019 might be one long replay of recent history.
The Bison dominated every aspect of a contest that was supposed to be an early challenge, particularly where it matters most. That would be up front. NDSU's offensive line — to steal a line from retired South Dakota head coach Joe Glenn — shook down Illinois State's defensive line and took their lunch money. Its defensive line made life miserable for traumatized Redbirds quarterback Brady Davis, who was sacked four times and scrambling wildly for safety the rest of the time.
This wasn't close, which left Redbirds head coach Brock Spack in an unusually crabby mood after the game. It wasn't so much that the Bison won, it was that Spack believed his team didn't respond with the proper moxie after NDSU socked Illinois State in the chops early in the game.
Illinois State's lone bright spot was Robinson, a senior from rough-and-tumble Rockford, Ill., (also Spack's hometown) who will have a football future beyond Normal. Robinson is 5-foot-10, 225 pounds with speed and strength. He is a bigger, better version of former Redbirds running back Marshaun Coprich, who Bison fans might remember from the 2014 national title game in Frisco, Texas.
Coprich, though, had the benefit of an ultra-talented quarterback in Tre Roberson, an offensive line that could create space and an NFL-bound tight end in James O'Shaughnessy as another weapon.
Robinson at times Saturday looked to be a one-man show, breaking arm tackles for two of his longer runs. It got to the point where Robinson was the only credible threat the Redbirds had.
"We focused on him all week. We knew we had to tackle and get more people to the point of attack. I think two of his longer runs were missed tackles," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "You guys have heard me say it before: That's why we're going to go back to practice on Monday."
Statistic of the day: Late in the second quarter Illinois State had 82 yards of total offense, the exact figure the Redbirds had as a team.
"All week we knew they would be trying to get the ball into 25's hands. He's a really good back, makes plays happen," said NDSU defensive end Derrek Tuszka. "We knew we had to keep the cup, wrap up, make plays, fit our gaps. Once we could stop him, they would have to resort to something else and then we got after them once they started passing."
This would be the definition of one-dimensional, which isn't going to beat a Bison defense. The formula to do that, it's been proven over the last several years, is to mix a dual-threat quarterback (Bryan Schor, Taryn Christion) with another dangerous piece or two (Dallas Goedert, Khalid Abdullah, Jake Wieneke) and hope that you can keep the Bison off-balance by mixing things up and changing tempo.
Davis isn't Schor or Christion and with Illinois State minus its top two receivers because of injury, that put the burden on Robinson.
He finished with 94 yards on 20 carries, including impressive dashes of 23 and 29 yards in which he shed would-be Bison tacklers. But Robinson had only 34 yards after the first quarter and with the Redbirds playing from behind in the second half, they could only give him the ball seven times after halftime.
And by that time, the Bison knew when he was getting it.
That included twice late in the third quarter, after Davis hit receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz over the middle for a 64-yard play that put the ball at NDSU's 1 yard line. It appeared the Redbirds were finally going to crack into the end zone. How could they not, with Robinson in the backfield?
Twice Illinois State handed the ball to Robinson, twice the Bison defense threw him for a loss.
After a false start penalty pushed the Redbirds back five yards, two Davis passes fell harmlessly to the turf — as everybody in the stadium suspected they would.
NDSU's defense held Illinois State without a touchdown for the first time since 2016. It was an impressive exclamation point on a defensive gem.
"I will still say he might be one of the best backs in FCS football. He may be one of the best running backs in the country. Physical. Great balance. Can break tackles. Has better speed than you can anticipate," Entz said. "To hold him under 100 yards was big for our kids today."
It became apparent early that unless Robinson ran for 275 yards and three touchdowns, the Redbirds would have no chance.
On this day, they had no chance. The Bison's schedule is running out of teams that will.