If you see a bunch of green-and-gold-clad football fans frolicking around the Twin Cities this weekend, don't worry. The Cheeseheads haven't arrived early for the Dec. 23 game against the Vikings.
You're seeing a temporary invasion from the northwest, with North Dakota State's football team visiting Target Field for its season opener against Butler on Saturday.
The Bison, winners of seven of the past eight FCS championships, including the past two, are expected to draw about 35,000 for the second college football game to be played at the Twins stadium. The 3 p.m. game might even challenge the announced crowd of 37,355 drawn by local Division III powers St. Thomas and St. John's in 2017.
"We're hoping to get close to a sellout," said Derrick Lang, executive director of NDSU's Team Makers, the athletic department's fundraising arm. "We're getting there. We're getting close."
That North Dakota State is playing at Target Field makes all kinds of sense. The Bison have a 12-game regular-season schedule — one more than usual — so they'll still have six games at the Fargodome.
The Twin Cities area has more than 15,000 NDSU alumni, so there's a built-in fan base that can augment the caravan that travels down I-94 from Fargo. And Minnesota always has been fertile recruiting ground for the Bison, who boast 36 Minnesotans on their roster, including seven starters on offense and three on defense.
"A lot of the potential student-athletes in the Minneapolis area have an understanding of who we are," first-year NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. "But hopefully … we can open some eyes and turn some heads to what Bison football looks like."
Added athletic director Matt Larsen: "The opportunity to go down to that area and hopefully have 35,000-plus NDSU fans, alums, etc., all on that one spot is pretty powerful day for the institution."
Planting the seed
The wheels began turning for NDSU playing at Target Field in 2016, when Twins President Dave St. Peter, a University of North Dakota alum, invited the Bison to a Twins game to be honored for their fifth consecutive national championship. Larsen asked St. Peter if he'd ever thought about holding a football game. The answer was yes, negotiations commenced, and the game was announced that October.
"NDSU's been a great partner," St. Peter said. "It was actually after this game that we ended up threading the needle on the St. Thomas-St. John's game. The benefit is that we've played one here. We learned a lot in that first game, and NDSU and Butler will be the beneficiaries of that."
Another reason NDSU sought out a game at a nontraditional location, Larsen indicated, was the fact that school wanted a special contest and finding games against FBS teams — the former Division I-A — became difficult.
The Bison boast a six-game winning streak against FBS teams, winning at Kansas (2010), Minnesota (2011), Colorado State (2-12), Kansas State (2013), Iowa State (2014) and No. 11 Iowa (2016), but haven't faced an FBS team since beating the Hawkeyes. That changes next year when the Bison visit Oregon, followed by trips to Arizona in 2022 and Colorado in 2024.
"We want to play an FBS game every year," Larsen said.
New beginning for Bison
That NDSU fan base will see a team in transition on Saturday. Entz will make his debut as Bison coach after spending the past five seasons coordinating NDSU's stingy defense. Quarterback Easton Stick, a three-year starter who followed Bison legend Carson Wentz, is now with the Los Angeles Chargers. In his place is redshirt freshman Trey Lance, a dual-threat athlete from Marshall, Minn., who beat out Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland for the starting job.
Lance is excited to take the reins.
"I wouldn't say there's pressure," he said. "We're a confident team, a confident program. That's just how we are."
Will there be future football games at Target Field? Hopefully, but not in the immediate future, St. Peter said. The Twins have no football games booked beyond Saturday's game and aren't in discussions with anyone on a future game.
"I don't think we view football as an every-year endeavor, but we do view it as something that we'd like to continue building on," said St. Peter, who added ticket sales were approaching 33,000 as of Thursday afternoon. "Ideally, the November window would be the best for us to play football."