In an average year, by the time the Dakota Athletic Conference reaches its halfway point, it doesn't take too much football knowhow to figure out who is going to win each week. Sure, there are the occasional upsets and the occasional game that is just too close to choose, but it isn't overly difficult.
This isn't an average year.
The DAC is as wild and wacky as it has ever been since I have covered the conference. With Dickinson State undefeated in league play and Valley City State waiting until Week 4 to earn its first conference victory, and the likes of Minot State, Jamestown College and Black Hills State all with one loss, it is anyone's guess.
It is probably great for the fans and terrible for head coaches.
After the Beavers' 25-16 win over South Dakota Mines, head coach Paul Rudolph explained it as a love-hate relationship with his team. At times he loves them to death, and at other times, well, death is still involved but not on the positive side. The Beavers have surely turned some of Rudolph's hairs a bit towards silver.
Week to week, MSU has shown it can be a great football team. Saturday's case in point was MSU's opening drive. A mix of pass, rush and a bit of efficiency. Or perhaps it was the Beavers' march downfield after Mines took a second-half lead, scoring on a 14-play drive that feature everything including a fake punt.
But there are times when MSU has looked more like a high school team than a college team. Making too many mental mistakes, missing too many tackles and lacking a consistency I think everybody took for granted coming into the season with the kind of experience the Beavers returned.
The thing for MSU to realize is, however, that they are so completely in the mix for this that they still might be the frontrunner. They would be my frontrunner if they can defeat Black Hills State this week at Spearfish. MSU would be 4-1, BHSU would have two loses, Jamestown and BHSU still have each other on the horizon and MSU finds itself at home with rival Dickinson State for a chance to win the conference outright.
This week is shaping up to be a huge week.
And yet, with this season, each and every week it seems has been like that. The Beavers desperately needed a win at Dickinson State in the conference's dreaded like-opponent-but-nonconference-game in Week 3 and got it. They returned home against nationally ranked Valley City State in the "Homecoming Hailstorm at the Herb," (fine, I know that is terrible, but the letter "H" doesn't lend itself to a cliche) and won, but fell in Jamestown in another classic run-and-gun affair. Now the Beavers have won two straight and are back in desperation mode. A loss Saturday and it is probably over.
On the topic of MSU and in the classic vein of things that will appear in "Duh" magazine (thank you Conan O'Brien), Nick Banks is a stone-cold stud. I am not sure if I have ever watched a back that throws himself more into a run. He is as tough as there is and gets better with each carry. Rudolph and I have talked repeatedly that if you look at his carries after his 25th, he has to be one of the top backs in the nation regardless of level.
The Beavers are 4-0 when Banks rushes 26 times or more, 0-3 when he gets the ball less. They are also 4-0 when he rushes for more than 150 yards. He was ranked No. 3 in the country in rushing entering last week and, if my feeble math skills can figure it out, he will lead the country when the new rankings come out today. Needless to say, getting Banks going is vital to the offense.
But enough with the flowery praise, this is a tough-love column. It is time for some motivation for the Beavers. If heading to Spearfish wasn't enough, maybe they need an individual to focus their week on. Maybe the team needs a little lockerroom material. OK, here it is, I'm not picking Minot State this week in Pigskin Picks (don't worry Mrs. Fuller I am, I'm just firing the team up).
It is time for the MSU team that everyone thought it would be at the start of the season to play like it. If it takes this column to be cut out and hung in the lockerroom and my mug crumbled up like Rocky Balboa did to Ivan Drago's photo in Rocky IV, then so be it.
Cue up Survivor.
(Michael Linnell is the Sports Editor at The Minot Daily News. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com)