It may no longer be surprising when North Dakota State beats an FBS team—after all the Bison have now won six straight against FBS competition—but Saturday’s 23–21 win over No. 13 Iowa still marked a major accomplishment for the FCS powerhouse that has won five consecutive national championships. North Dakota State’s victory in Kinnick Stadium marked its first ever over a ranked FBS opponent as kicker Cam Pederson’s 37-yard field goal snuck just inside of the right upright as time expired. Here are three thoughts on the stunning win:
1. This was no fluke
We’ve seen marquee FCS wins before, and they tend to follow a similar pattern: The FBS team makes a bevy of mistakes and turns the ball over frequently while the FCS team gets a little lucky and strikes for a few big scoring plays.
North Dakota State’s win did not follow that formula. The Bison didn’t win like an underdog; they won like the powerhouse they are. Offensively, they moved the ball methodically with a power running game driven by an offensive line that consistently won battles in the trenches. North Dakota State outrushed Iowa 239–34 and converted both of its fourth-down tries on the ground, including a fourth-and-two at the Iowa 17 in the fourth quarter that helped set up a touchdown to pull the Bison within one point.
Defensively, North Dakota State similarly relied on only a few big plays. The Bison got their first points of the game on a pick-six as Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard got hit from his blindside and lobbed the ball right to linebacker MJ Stumpf for a 21-yard return. However, that was the Hawkeyes’ only turnover of the game. The rest of North Dakota State’s stops were the product of stout defense. The Bison held the Hawkeyes to 1.4 yards per carry and allowed conversions on only five of 13 third downs.
2. Why do teams keep scheduling North Dakota State?
Perhaps Iowa assumed it was better than Kansas in 2010, Minnesota in ’11, Colorado State in ’12, Kansas State in ’13 and Iowa State in ’14. All five FBS programs fell to North Dakota State, which is 9–3 all-time against the FBS. Still, the reward for playing the Bison simply does not match the risk.
Sure, given North Dakota State’s status, a win over the Bison deserves more credit than a victory over other FCS foes. But ultimately, a win would still primarily be marked as a win over an FCS opponent, even if it is a very good one. Similarly, a loss goes down as an embarrassing defeat to an FCS foe even when that foe could probably beat a decent portion of Iowa’s fellow Big Ten members. Because of how a win and a loss would be perceived and because of the likelihood of a loss, there’s just no reason for an FBS team to play the Bison.
Obviously, this is unfortunate because seeing the FCS’s best test themselves against the FBS is exciting and can produce dramatic wins like Saturday’s. It’s in college football’s interest to have games like this one—but it’s not in the interest of any FBS program.
3. Good news, Iowa, at least the competition gets easier
The concept of the FCS tuneup game does not apply when facing North Dakota State, so at least the Hawkeyes can take solace in the fact that their first ever loss to an FCS opponent came to a very, very good FCS opponent. Plus, things will actually get a bit easier after Saturday.
Iowa travels to Rutgers next week to open Big Ten play, and while the Scarlet Knights are 2–1, they fell into a 14–0 hole against Howard and a 21–0 hole against New Mexico before rallying to win. A week later, the Hawkeyes host 0–2 Northwestern, which also fell to an FCS opponent, Illinois State, in Week 2.
So at least the schedule sets Iowa up to rebound after Saturday’s test.