FARGO — Yes, North Dakota State has a game Saturday against North Carolina A&T. No, college football teams cannot afford to overlook any opponent. Yes, the Aggies will be a better team than Drake, the foe the Bison dispatched 56-14 in the season opener last week.
But if you squint hard enough, you can see cactus on the horizon.
Those would be in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, where next week NDSU will play its first game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in six years. The University of Arizona is in Tucson and it is the most-anticipated Bison non-conference game in, well, six years.
The apparently much-improved Wildcats, 1-10 last year, walloped San Diego State 38-20 in their season opener. They take on Mississippi State of the mighty Southeastern Conference this Saturday in a 10 p.m. Central kickoff. Many eyes in Fargo and North Dakota will be on that game.
NDSU is favored by 33 1/2 points over A&T, a proud program with a winning tradition. So the Bison would like to be sharper than they were last week against overmatched Drake. A faster start would help.
But if the Bison do what they are expected to do against the Aggies, it is time for Arizona Week to begin. Finally.
Here are five things to watch in the Bison-North Carolina A&T game.
Drake, one of the poorest offensive teams in FCS a season ago, opened last week's game with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took nearly 5 minutes. The Bulldogs completed a 17-yard pass, a 31-yard pass and had runs of 10 and 9 yards on the drive.
It was only one drive, and Drake wasn't going to win the game, but it was a weak start for a Bison defense again expected to be outstanding. Instead of coming out on fire in the first game of the season and smothering the Bulldogs, the Bison looked flat.
Bison head coach Matt Entz took responsibility.
"I'll take a little bit of the blame. We probably anticipated that maybe we could get ourselves fired up. I'm probably going to have to do a better job pregame of maybe lighting the fire, regardless of who we play," Entz said in his postgame remarks, adding that perhaps the Bison overprepared and had "paralysis by analysis."
It's understandable, given NDSU knew it was going to have little trouble against the non-scholarship Bulldogs. It happens. It's a long season. The players who watch film are human.
Regardless, expect the Bison to have a faster start against the Aggies as NDSU ramps up in preparation for Arizona and the coming Missouri Valley Football Conference season.
If that doesn't happen, then it's something to revisit.
I wrote about North Carolina A&T and head coach Sam Washington this week, focusing on the Aggies' proud history as an HBCU (historically Black college or university) and Washington's lifelong devotion to those schools.
HBCUs in large part have tremendous followings and a few of the schools, including well-known Jackson State, are among the top-drawing FCS programs. A&T ranked 12th last year in attendance with an average of more than 12,000 fans per game.
One side note: It's too bad the A&T marching band, the Blue and Gold Marching Machine, couldn't make the trip to Fargo. One of the great college marching bands.
Anyway ... NDSU has a long history of playing HBCUs. Washington, in fact, was the defensive coordinator for the Mississippi Valley State team that came to the Fargodome in 2006 (a 45-0 Bison win). NDSU has played the Delta Devils three times.
Going back to the Bison's Division II days, they played Central State of Ohio twice in the 1980s in the playoffs and squared off against Virginia Union in the 1982 playoffs.
NDSU hosted Prairie View A&M in 2012 in a non-conference game and followed that with a game against Delaware State in 2013, the game following Fargo's first hosting of ESPN's "College GameDay" program.
But the biggest game against an HBCU came in the 1965 Pecan Bowl, when NDSU secured its first national championship (in what was then called the College Division) by defeating famed Grambling State and head coach Eddie Robinson 20-7 in Abilene, Texas.
Wrote Fargo Forum sports editor Eugene "Fitz" Fitzgerald in the next morning's newspaper:
"ABILENE, Tex. — The North Dakota State University Bison removed any vestige of doubt about their right to a claim on the 1965 national small college football championship here Saturday.
"They did it with convincing 20-7 victory over the Grambling College Tigers of Grambling, La., in the second annual Pecan Bowl game before 8,500 paid fans.
"The Bison, rated No. 1 in the Associated Press and the United Press International weekly polls, supposedly had taken on too much in Grambling's big and speedy individualists, three of them high on the draft lists of professional football teams.
"The North Dakota opportunists lost no time in convincing their highly rated opponents, victors in 9 of 11 bowl games, that they had come to play."
That history continues against A&T.
NDSU entered the season with the usual high expectations, but with two obvious questions. Who would become the No. 1 receiver with Christian Watson moving on to the NFL? And which players would make up the linebacker corps, particularly at middle linebacker?
It's not clear anything was cemented after Week 1.
The Bison threw just 13 passes in the blowout over Drake and only two wide receivers made catches — senior Zach Mathis had a 31-yard touchdown reception and senior Phoenix Sproles made a 15-yard catch.
Mathis' touchdown came on a wide receiver screen, so was it was a catch-and-run instead of a run-and-catch.
The Bison offense will continue to look for clarity in that situation.
Against Drake, NDSU split snaps pretty evenly among the players listed on the two-deep depth chart at each linebacker position, according to Pro Football Focus.
Nick Kubitz played 32 snaps at middle linebacker, compared to 30 for Luke Weerts.
James Kaczor played 32 snaps at weakside linebacker, compared to 29 for Logan Kopp.
Oscar Benson played 29 snaps at strongside linebacker, compared to 24 for Julian Wlodarczyk.
Entz indicated at his Monday press conference the Bison would likely rotate linebackers against A&T, too.
Kaczor, Benson and Kubitz received the highest grades from PFF, according to the analytics firm. Kopp and Wlodarczyk received lower grades.
With speedy Arizona and its mobile quarterback Jayden De Laura up next, this will be an area to watch.
Jayden Price is becoming a must-see on special teams with his punt return ability.
The cornerback returned his third punt for a touchdown against Drake, taking a second-quarter boot and running 67 yards untouched to the end zone. Bulldogs coach Todd Sepsis said after the game his punter made a mistake kicking the ball down the middle of the field because it gave Price the entire width of the field to navigate.
"I put a lot of trust in my teammates," Price said postgame. "I grab that thing and run for my life."
He also ran one back 85 yards against Illinois State in the spring 2021 season and returned one 45 yards last year against Valparaiso, like Drake, a Pioneer Football League program.
There were several occasions over the past two seasons when Price nearly broke punt returns for touchdowns.
Price is the active FCS leader with a career punt return average of 15.85, which ranks second in school history behind Travis White’s 16.0 average from 2002 to 2006.
Don't take your eyes off the field when No. 23 jogs back to receive a punt.
Straight from the pregame notes:
"After going over 100 career total offense attempts last week against Drake, Jalen Bussey currently ranks first in NDSU history averaging 8.75 yards per play. Bussey had touchdown runs last year of 61 yards against Youngstown State and a career-long 72 yards against Valparaiso. He also has a 50-yard kickoff return to his credit."
The little running back from Tampa (5-foot-5, 160 pounds) is a big-play guy even with the limited carries he receives.
Against Drake, Bussey had just three carries for 10 yards. He's coming off a foot injury suffered during last year's playoffs in December, so it was a positive to see him practice all fall camp and get carries in the first game.
This week, there might be an opportunity for Bussey to bust a big play. NDSU's offensive line will likely control the line of scrimmage against the smallish Aggies, who allowed North Carolina Central to convert on 10 of 16 (63%) of its third downs last week.
If Bussey gets a handful of opportunities in the Bison's backfield rotation, this might set up as a game in which he breaks a long touchdown run. Eight different running backs, and 11 players overall, had carries against Drake.
(Forum reporter Eric Peterson contributed to this story.)