McFeely: Bison offense answers the nitpickers
Covering North Dakota State's football team is an exercise in nitpicking. This is what happens when a team wins six national championships in seven years and, with Saturday's victory, is 100-8 since the beginning of the 2011 season.
Small things become big things, medium things become huge things and big things become massive things.
Carson Wentz hurt his wrist! OMG, what will happen? Is this the end of the dynasty?
No, a redshirt freshman quarterback named Easton Stick will relieve the eventual No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft and go 8-0 as a starter to lead the Bison to the Division I FCS national championship game.
Even with the biggest of big things, it doesn't seem there is reason to fret.
And so it was, it appears, with concern over the Bison's ability to pass the football in their first two games.
In two victories against non-conference cupcakes, now-senior Stick was only so-so—and even less than that against Cal Poly in the season opener. He threw for 48 yards on only four completions in that one. What is this, 1986?
OMG, does the Bison offense have what it takes to get to Frisco again?
You might want to ask Delaware, 38-10 losers at the Fargodome. After being thumped over the head by a Jabril Cox interception return for a score, the unsuspecting Blue Hens were jabbed into submission by Stick and a stable of receivers that hadn't made much noise prior to Saturday.
Stick finished 17 of 26 for 280 yards and two touchdowns, with most of that coming in the first half. Senior Desmond Cain, who came to Fargo with a Big Ten resume that hadn't translated into production, had four catches for 89 yards. Redshirt freshman Christian Watson had his first career catch and it was highlight-worthy. The Bison's mammoth offensive line, after a subpar game last week against North Alabama, provided Stick with time to throw that could've been measured by an egg timer.
On a 39-yard completion to Dallas Freeman in the second quarter, Stick had 5.5 seconds—I know, I timed it—to stand in the pocket unpressured before unleashing a missile down the left sideline. If he needed more time, he could've had it. The Blue Hens weren't getting near him.
"It seemed like a minute and a half," Stick said.
The quarterback, of course, gave credit to the offensive line for the improved aerial attack, but head coach Chris Klieman said coaches designed some plays specifically for Cain "to get him going." The Bison still, are looking for another receiver or two to complement Freeman and Darrius Shepherd. There is hope Cain, Watson, true freshman Phoenix Sproles or true freshman Kenneth Channelle can fill that role.
There is this truth, too: NDSU's passing game was more diversified against Delaware, and showed plays it hadn't run in the first games. Running back Bruce Anderson's 18-yard TD catch in the first quarter was an example. Stick faked a handoff to Anderson, who ran down the middle of the field to the end zone. Stick drilled him there to make it 28-0.
"The first two games we didn't show a whole lot," Klieman said. "Part of that was because we had a bye week and part of that was because we were up so big in the first game. There were some things we installed in fall camp that we just didn't bring out until this week."
OMG, the Bison are fine-tuning heading into the Missouri Valley Football Conference season.
Stick, too, was sharper than he'd shown through the first two games. Klieman called him "on-point." Delaware coach Danny Rocco, who coached the Richmond team that lost 33-7 in the 2015 playoff semifinals to Stick and the Bison, saw a quarterback who is a better thrower and an always-dangerous runner.
"I've seen steady progress," Rocco said. "More accuracy and maybe even more decisiveness in his ability to distribute the ball.
"The thing that really is an amazing weapon for him is his ability to run the ball, whether that's on designed runs or scramble runs. He took a play 80-some yards against Youngstown State last year for a touchdown. Just took off and went 80 yards for a touchdown. He's hard to get on the ground and when he has a one-on-one he has a very efficient and very effective runner."
OMG, the Bison offense seems to be rounding into shape as South Dakota State comes to town next.
For a week, the nitpicking can cease. But probably only for a week, based on the outcome against the Jackrabbits.