(STATS) - With first place on the line in the competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference, North Dakota State and Youngstown State might have to overcome a key loss on the offensive end if they hope to pull out a critical victory.
The Penguins are focused on redeeming themselves in their second conference showdown in three weeks after falling at South Dakota State on Oct. 22, but they may have to do it without quarterback Ricky Davis due to an undisclosed injury.
"Hopefully, we get off to a better start (than against the Jackrabbits) and don't get put behind the eight ball," YSU coach Bo Pelini said. "You don't know how the game is going to go. You just never do."
North Dakota State, meanwhile, could be missing leading rusher King Frazier after he injured his ribs in Saturday's 24-20 win at Northern Iowa. X-rays were negative, but the he might have cartilage damage and is questionable to play.
The Jackrabbits, Bison and Penguins are currently tied atop the MVFC, but either No. 4 North Dakota State (7-1, 4-1) or No. 15 Youngstown State (6-2, 4-1) will be knocked from that perch on Saturday at the Fargodome. The Bison have won the past four meetings, including a thrilling 27-24 road win last November.
Davis went 0 for 4 passing in that contest, though he ran for 61 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. The junior has thrown for 864 yards and rushed for 340 in six games. If he can't go, Hunter Wells will make his second straight start after completing 13 of 26 passes for 101 yards with two interceptions in Saturday's 13-10 win over Indiana State.
Wells, a more traditional pocket passer, has gone a combined 24 for 46 for 239 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in his two career games against the Bison.
"They run a lot of the same sets but the ability of the quarterback to carry the football is quite a bit different between the two guys," NDSU coach Chris Klieman said. "We'll have to be prepared for two guys that can do different things."
Frazier's potential loss would be a big one for Klieman's squad, which is struggling offensively. The senior has run for a team-leading 579 yards and eight touchdowns. Sophomore running back Bruce Anderson is expected to miss another week.
The Bison have averaged 20.7 points and 332 total yards in their last three games after putting up 31 points and 440.4 yards per contest over their first five. Sophomore quarterback Easton Stick tossed nine touchdowns and just two interceptions through the first five games, but he's now thrown just two scores with four picks over the past three.
Stick threw for 176 yards and also ran in the go-ahead four-yard score with 35 seconds left in last year's matchup.
It certainly won't get any easier against the Penguins, who lead the conference in total defense with 276.1 total yards allowed per game. Avery Moss ranks second in the league with 8 1/2 sacks and third with 10 1/2 tackles for loss, while fellow senior defensive end Derek Rivers is third in sacks with eight and tied for fourth in TFL with nine.
"It's a great challenge," Klieman said. "Everybody talks about their defensive ends - they're great players - and I'm really impressed with their front seven, but what really sets them apart is their ability to play man coverage."
Youngstown State, however, is having its own troubles offensively as it ranks last in the MVFC at 23.9 points per game. The Penguins have averaged just 12.3 points in their last three after being held to 291 total yards by the Sycamores.
"We ran for almost 200 yards and moved the ball between the 20s a lot," Pelini said. "We had opportunities for points. Obviously, we don't want to turn the football over and that's always (a concern). I thought we played better last week and did some good things, but you have to turn them into points. We just have to keep working to get better."
Running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb are a concern for Klieman, who saw Webb rush for a career-high 132 yards and two touchdowns on just five carries against the Bison last season. Ruiz is leading the way this year, ranking second in the conference with 86.9 rushing yards per game to go along with his seven touchdowns.
YSU paces the league with an average of 237.8 rushing yards, but NDSU has held opponents to a MVFC-low 93.8 per game.
"You've got to go in and earn it. It should be a good challenge," Pelini said.