At left, quarterback Nick Mertens. At right, head coach Craig Bohl
By Richard Anderson
Nick Mertens was an understudy the past two years for highly decorated North Dakota State quarterback Steve Walker in consecutive 10-1 seasons.
With Walker now graduated, Mertens is receiving top billing. After two games, he’s getting rave reviews on his performance.
North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl said during his Missouri Valley Football Conference media teleconference on Wednesday that so far, things have gone well with Mertens at the helm.
“We have been fortunate that we have played at home against two opponents that I wouldn’t classify anywhere in the same category that Wyoming is,” Bohl said. “The thing that we have asked Nick to do he has delivered well. He’s got an excellent completion record. His decision making and his leadership skills in managing our offense has been very good.
“It’s his opportunity to lead our football team and we are well pleased with what he done so far.”
There is certainly pressure on the 6-foot-1 junior, who went into the season throwing just 16 passes, competing 10 for 166 yards. In two games this season, Mertens is an outstanding 31-of-41 for 490 yards, one interception and six touchdowns.
Bohl said that there is no question that there is some pressure on Mertens. Yet, it appears that he has handled the pressure well.
“There’s not a more highlighted position in football than the quarterback position and we had a four-year starter who led us in transition,” Bohl said. “We were a Division II school that had been 2-8 before Steve got here. We had two 10-1 seasons and Steve was an excellent quarterback. I’m sure Nick has felt that pressure. If I had a quarter for every time somebody asked me how our quarterback was doing, I’d be a wealthy guy now. He’s handled the pressure well right now. He’s confident, he’s grounded and he is a smart quarterback. He also has some good physical skills.”
One advantage the Bison have had in the past couple of seasons, Bohl said, is their domination on the line of scrimmage. That physical advantage will be put to test against the bigger Cowboys.
“Certainly they (Wyoming) are a very physically talented football team,” Bohl said. “We have always felt that our strength has been our line of scrimmage with our size and explosion. They have five returning linemen back and their defense was in the Top 25 in every defensive category last year with a lot of those players back. It will be a challenge for us.”
Bison nicked up
The Bison could go into Saturday’s game without the services of preseason All-America running back candidate Tyler Roehl (high ankle sprain) and starting middle linebacker Tyler Henry (knee). Both suffered injuries last week in the 50-14 win over Central Connecticut State. Roehl had 100 yards rushing in just four carries before the injury and has 174 yards (9.2 yards per carry) on the season.
“We’re not going to keep anything from anybody; they are nicked up right now,” Bohl said. “I would anticipate that both will make the trip. How functional they both will be, we don’t know how they are going to come across. They certainly are not at full speed.”
If Roehl can’t go, Bohl’s bench has performed well this season as well. Last week, junior Pat Paschall ran for 117 yards on 14 carries yards and freshman D.J. McNorton added 40 yards on the ground. Redshirt freshman Matt Voightlander has 107 yards rushing in two games this season.
Also injured last week with a knee injury was starting left tackle Gerry Ebel, who will be out for a month.
“The guys have a good attitude. We’ve been working hard to do out there and give Wyoming a heck of a game and come back with a victory,” Bohl said.
Life on the road
The Bison will make their first road trip of the season, which always presents different elements and challenges, Bohl said.
“Certain players embrace those differences and others don’t handle it very well,” he said. “It does help us that we are a fairly senior-laden football team as we go into a lot of different places all over the country.”
Of course, there has been plenty of mention in Laramie and Fargo on the fact that the Cowboys play at 7,220 feet above sea level. The Bison play at 850 feet.
“We’ve never played at a location with the altitude of 7,200 feet. It’s a little bit higher than typically we play at,” Bohl said. “They talk about that a lot and we are going to go out there and get ready to play a foot ball game. Certainly a lot of people have made note of the altitude. It’s the highest stadium in the country. It will be a challenge.”
After Saturday’s game, the Bison open Missouri Valley Football Conference play on Sept. 20 at Youngstown (Ohio) State.