Although it's been a terribly difficult week for North Dakota State, the top-ranked Bison are doing their best to try and stay focused heading into a tough rivalry matchup.
It's uncertain whether backup running back and special teamer Chase Morlock will play against South Dakota State after his father passed away last weekend following a battle with cancer. It's a loss that has hit the entire NDSU family, according to coach Chris Klieman.
"There's no coaching 101 manual. We'll do everything we can (to prepare)," Klieman confessed. "We have a tremendous administration, a great bunch of assistant coaches and resilient players with everything they've been through. We'll take it day-by-day."
The heavy-hearted Bison are hoping to retain the trophy in the 13th annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday. They're going after their ninth consecutive victory over the 11th-ranked Jackrabbits and 15th straight win overall, which would be the second longest in Missouri Valley Football Conference history behind its own 33-game run from 2012-14.
The Bison (5-0, 2-0), however, are facing a difficult challenge against Taryn Christion and a visiting South Dakota State team that ranks fourth in the nation at 45 points per game and 15th with 461.4 total yards. Christion ranks fourth nationally with 327.4 passing yards per game after he threw for a school-record 466 and five touchdowns in a 51-32 win at Southern Illinois.
The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 20 TDs with one interception in 173 attempts this season. Christion has benefited from an outstanding receiver tandem in Jake Wieneke, who has 33 receptions for 595 yards with 10 touchdowns, and Dallas Goedert, who has 34 catches for 561 yards and eight scores.
"(Christion) does it all and he's playing with a lot of confidence," Klieman said. "They're putting a lot of points on the board and even in their losses, he's played extremely well. What I'm so impressed with is how well he throws the deep ball. He has tremendous accuracy, tremendous loft on the ball and puts it in position for their playmakers."
Klieman's squad ranks second in the conference with 313.2 yards allowed per game, but is only sixth against the pass. The Bison are coming off perhaps their best defensive effort last weekend when they limited Missouri State to 176 total yards and just 30 on the ground in a 27-3 road victory.
Offensively, NDSU will likely lean on King Frazier after the senior running back finished with a season-high 126 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries against the Bears. Frazier, who had 44 yards and a score on 14 attempts in last season's 28-7 win over SDSU, is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has a touchdown in four of the team's five games.
That certainly doesn't bode well for the Jackrabbits (3-2, 2-0), who rank second to last in the MVFC with 206 rushing yards allowed per game.
"They're what everyone wants to be when you try to run the football," SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. "They just dominate you in time of possession, wear you down and get points when they need them."
The Bison held the Jackrabbits to minus-4 yards rushing in last year's conference opener to grab a 59-40-5 advantage in the all-time series. SDSU's 25-24 win in 2008 marked its first in Fargo since 1962 and represents its only victory over the past 28 road meetings.
"The North Dakota State game has become a tremendous rivalry," Stiegelmeier added. "The Border Marker trophy, the intensity, the playoffs, the conference championship - all those things come together. I know it's early in the season, but it's going to be a fun game."
RANKED SHOWDOWN IN YOUNGSTOWN=
Sack-crazy Youngstown State (4-1, 2-0) goes after its fourth straight win and first 3-0 start in league play since 2013 on Saturday night when it hosts No. 21 Northern Iowa (2-3, 1-1).
The 14th-ranked Penguins are getting it done with the MVFC's top defense (290.8 yards allowed per game). They held Illinois State to just 250 total yards and its lowest point total since Oct. 6, 2012 in Saturday's 20-6 road win.
YSU had six more sacks against the Redbirds, increasing their season total to 19. The Penguins are now tied for third in the FCS with 3.8 per game. Derek Rivers ranks second in the conference with seven sacks, while Avery Moss has five.
They'll try to corral Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey, who has thrown for 838 yards and six touchdowns against only one interception. The senior also has rushed for 416 yards and six scores.
"They have a dual-threat quarterback in Bailey. He's a good player. They have some skill and they'll give you a couple different looks," said YSU coach Bo Pelini, whose squad is the only FCS program that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season. "It's going to be important that we're all on the same page and guys are able to adjust to formations."
The Panthers have won 12 of the past 13 meetings, though this is the first since a 22-20 home victory on a last-second field goal in 2013. They enter this one having dropped three of four since a season-opening 25-20 win at Iowa State on Sept. 3.
"This is a heck of a test for us at a critical time," coach Mark Farley said. "This is one of the best football teams in the (FCS) - I promise you that."