No. 1 NDSU, No. 4 UNI face off in Fargo

FARGO, N.D. – The football coaches from North Dakota State and Northern Iowa are leery about referring to their series as a rivalry, but there’s clearly more to their relationship than a three-hour game every year.

“There are a lot of story lines,” is how NDSU coach Craig Bohl puts it.

The top line is Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision meeting in Fargo between the top-ranked Bison and No. 4 Panthers to decide who has the upper hand in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The two teams have butted heads since NDSU came into the conference in 2008 and challenged UNI’s superiority.

The Bison are coming off a victory over South Dakota State for the Dakota Marker trophy, but no additional prizes are needed this week.

“Well, there are different rivals,” Bohl said. “I think through the years it’s probably been the most heated game that we’ve had. For a long time they were pretty much the king of the conference.”

The Panthers have won or shared 16 titles in 36 years of conference play, nine more than the nearest competitor. They greeted NDSU’s entrance into the league by beating the Bison three straight times, including a 42-27 victory at the Fargodome in 2009.

UNI has lost its last two games against the Bison, whom UNI coach Mark Farley calls the “ultimate challenge right now” for his team.

“In all honesty, I always stay away from the word rival,” Farley said. “It’s become a great game. They go back and forth, they’re battles. I know this: It’s an exciting game to get ready for.”

The matchup, one of two games Saturday between unbeaten teams in the FCS, features the top two defenses in the conference. NDSU is first in total defense, holding opponents to 244 yards a game. Northern Iowa is next at 285 yards.

The Bison, who have posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1987, held the nation’s top rusher, Zach Zenner, to four yards on eight carries in last week’s 20-0 win over SDSU. The Jackrabbits finished with minus-32 yards on the ground.

“Each game gets bigger and bigger,” Bohl said. “This will be a playoff game. You can slice and dice it up anyway you want to. This team we’re playing is an excellent football team.”

Farley said he welcomes the challenge.

“It gives our league a lot of hype, too, but for us it’s a big game as it is,” he said. “Tough place to play and tough team to play.”