FARGO — The number 84 can be a pretty good thing in Division I FCS football. If you’re a wide receiver.
But that was the ranking for North Dakota State in turnover margin in the spring season and considering there were only 97 teams that played… not good.
“In the spring, there were some glaring statistics about our takeaways on defense and turnovers on offense and the margin between that,” said Bison senior linebacker Jackson Hankey. “You see pretty quickly that is not a recipe for winning football games.”
That fact the Bison won seven games with a turnover margin (turnovers gained vs. turnovers lost) of minus-9 was pretty good. Southern Illinois finished 6-4 with a TO margin of minus-11, otherwise everybody else in that neighborhood had losing seasons.
For NDSU, hope of change came in the season opener last week when the Bison intercepted two University of Albany passes and recovered a fumble in the 28-6 win at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. It was the first time in 16 games that an NDSU opponent committed at least three turnovers.
“That was huge, turnovers are the key to the game,” said Bison defensive tackle Eli Mostaert. “You always want the ball and by us giving the offense three extra chances to score just helps our team.”
NDSU took advantage of those turnovers scoring touchdowns after all three. Hankey forced and recovered a fumble for the first time in his career in the first quarter. Ten players later, running back Dominic Gonnella scored from three yards and it was 7-0.
Dawson Weber’s second quarter interception led to a 14-0 advantage and Destin Talbert’s INT in the fourth quarter was answered with Hunter Luepke’s seven-yard TD run.
The last time the Bison were that greedy was toward the end of the 2019 regular season when they forced four Western Illinois turnovers in a 57-21 win.
Hard to believe but the Bison would go on to win the following six games to complete an unbeaten season and yet did not force more than two turnovers in those games. NDSU picked off Western Illinois quarterback Connor Sampson twice, while Mostaert and cornerback Jayden Price recovered fumbles.
“To come out and be able to take the ball away three times and have a few more opportunities on Saturday was a big confidence booster for our defense and for our team,” Hankey said.
As expected, the turnover margin was addressed heavily in the month of practice leading up to the Albany game. Mostaert said the defense worked on it daily. NDSU forced only five turnovers in the nine games last spring.
“We had five turnovers last spring and we definitely need to improve that,” Mostaert said. “That was bad on our part as a defense and we weren’t able to help our offense as much in the spring. Starting off with three in our first game was really good.”