FARGO — The first Sunday football game in the history of North Dakota State did have one element of church to it. The Bison huddled at midfield for their usual moment of prayer after the game.
By then, the crowd of 6,578 at Gate City Bank Field were well on their way to the exits in the wake of a 25-7 win over Youngstown State. It wasn’t the electric offensive show the fans have seen over the years.
But it was a win.
And that’s what counts in the starting debut of Bison quarterback Zeb Noland.
“I got in the huddle and smiled, called the first play and you take it all in,” he said. “I know when you play in the Fargodome you get to smell the almonds when you’re running out of the tunnel. I didn’t take it for granted, soaked it all up and it was good to have enough fans to have a good crowd.”
It wasn’t the packed dome of years past, but we’ll take anything in the COVID-19 world.
It was Noland’s first real action since midway in the 2018 season at Iowa State, and certainly there was bound to be rest. If anybody forgot, it’s 2021.
Playing quarterback isn’t like riding a bike, so for those hoping for the second coming of Carson, Trey or Easton, calm down. It may take some time.
It’s a tough act to follow, this quarterback position at NDSU. Brock Jensen won three FCS national titles. Carson Wentz was the starting QB for two more. Easton Stick has three title rings and, of course, Trey Lance engineered a 16-0 season in 2019.
“There’s some plays I wish we had back,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “I think there are some things where we could take the easier throw.”
Noland has a strong arm and showed it on a few occasions. There was also this nugget: with a new coaching staff and new coordinator, the Bison had no real idea what to expect from the Youngstown defense.
One correctable faux paus: Junior receiver Christian Watson was nonexistent in the passing game other than drawing a pass interference penalty. Watson did have a nice 30-yard jet sweep in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown that put the game away but finished the game with zero receptions.
“It is the first game and it’s one of those things, we’ll start to click even more,” Noland said. “When you’re running the ball so effectively, and you’re getting three and four yards a pop, it’s really hard to take a lower percentage throw over the top when you can just hand it off to the back and keep moving the chains. We’ll start clicking on it and hit it deep more.”
Cole Jacob was the top target with three catches for 28 yards. Tight end Noah Gindorff had two receptions including one that kick-started a touchdown drive in the first quarter that gave the Bison the lead for good.
“We got it to other people,” Entz said. “Of course everyone knows who (Watson) is with the breakout 2019. He’s an outstanding threat at wide receiver but he can also carry the football and run with it. We’ll continue to find different ways to use our talents.”
Noland finished 9 of 18 passing for 74 yards. Not great. He also didn’t make any glaring mistakes like an interception or a fumble.
And to be fair, NDSU didn’t get too deep into the playbook. The Bison played it basic, putting the game in the hands of the running backs and offensive line rather than on a QB in his first Bison start.
“There were a couple throws you would like to have back,” Noland said. “It was good to be out there, get in the flow of things. I know it sounds crazy but really enjoy watching the running backs run.”
That, they did. Kobe Johnson had 114 yards and a touchdown and Jalen Bussey showed his quickness with two scores.
Also, NDSU had to make an educated prediction on what kind of defense Youngstown State was going to throw at them. The Bison looked at the Penguins’ defensive staff and dug up tape at their previous schools.
Entz said NDSU even looked over a couple of Division III games.
“We just went into it with an open mind,” Noland said. “Get a four-down plan and three-down plan and just roll with it. It takes a lot of preparation and detail but I feel like everybody on the offense locked in this week and took it really serious.”
And this week ended in a victory. Call it good.