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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 01 2013

Healthier Panthers team awaits Bison

FARGO – It was 53 weeks ago when North Dakota State traveled to Northern Iowa in NDSU’s Missouri Valley Football Conference opener. The Bison saw a team that had just come off playing two Big Ten Conference opponents.

The Panthers had more bumps and bruises than Evel Knievel.

They are healthier this time around in the early season league clash with the Bison, which kicks off at 2:37 p.m. Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. The results are also healthier: UNI is 4-0 and ranked fourth in the Division I FCS coaches poll.

Whereas last year ended with an uncommon losing record – the Panthers won their last three games to finish 5-6 – this season has been almost a direct opposite.

“We’re a year older and healthier,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley.

Losses at Wisconsin and Iowa started the downward spiral last season. The Panthers pulled back on the FBS opponents this year with just Iowa State – and that resulted in a 28-20 win to open the season.

The talent is about the same as it was last season, Farley said.

“There might be different names out there,” he said. “I like to think we always have good players, we just have to execute on the field.”

They’ve been executing with running back David Johnson carrying the load. Ordinarily a team that uses two tailbacks in the same mode that NDSU uses Sam Ojuri and John Crockett, it’s been all Johnson for UNI.

He’s second in the conference in rushing, averaging 137.2 yards a game. He’s also eighth in the league in receiving yards per game at 51.8. That’s a double threat not often seen in a tailback.

“He’s not only a big guy, but has excellent change of direction,” said NDSU head coach Craig Bohl. “He has good hands and they utilize him out of the backfield. Looking at those specifics – size and speed and a quarterback that is playing well – they have a lot of weapons.”

The quarterback is sophomore Sawyer Kollmorgen, who has thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception. Farley said the strides he’s taken since last year are numerous.

“In the first go-around, you’re just trying to do your own job and trying to find where you fit in,” he said. “Now he knows our offense, knows the coaches and knows his receivers. He’s at a level where he can have those relationships that make a great quarterback.”

There’s not much that’s average in this matchup. NDSU moved up to No. 29 this week in the USA Today Sagarin ratings, the highest the Bison have ever been in the all-Division I power poll. It puts NDSU ahead of 10 of the 12 Big Ten Conference teams. UNI is No. 51 making it a clash of FCS heavyweights.

“I think it’s great for our league,” Farley said. “It gives our league a lot of hype, too. For us, it’s a big game. It’s a tough place to play and a tough team to play.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia