FARGO — Across 19th Avenue North from the Fargodome, Buffalo Wild Wings was packed with football fans wearing green and yellow. There was a wait to get a table. Down the street, Labby's Grill and Bar was full but not jammed. On the other side of North Dakota State's campus, on 12th Avenue North, Herd and Horns was having a good day.

"Not crazy, but good," Herd and Horns co-owner Brent Tehven said. "We all need it."

It might have been late February. The sun high and bright in a clear blue sky, with snow melting, it might have felt much more like a day to emerge from a long winter's hibernation than to trek indoors to watch a college football game. It might have been a Sunday afternoon, a day for worship or family or a hockey game.

It might've also seemed dangerous given that the COVID-19 pandemic, while abating, is still alive and leaving Americans unwell. The United States surpassed 500,000 virus deaths Sunday.

North Dakota State fans read the game program before kickoff against Youngstown State at the Fargodome on Sunday, Feb. 21.
David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State fans read the game program before kickoff against Youngstown State at the Fargodome on Sunday, Feb. 21. David Samson / The Forum

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

All of those things were true, but it didn't stop football at the Fargodome. The strangest season in NDSU's 123 years of the sport, dating to 1894 with a few seasons vacated for wars and other obstacles, kicked off against Youngstown State.

Spring football is a thing.

For the team's new starting quarterback Zeb Noland, it felt like a normal game day. He said it was actually "kind of nice to play on Sunday."

"You don't have to worry about going to class on Saturday. You can hang out with your buddies and get ready for the game. I enjoyed that part of it," he said.

The fans, thirsting for normalcy after a long year of anything but, headed to the bars like it was September pregame celebration. With no tailgating allowed in the dome's west parking lot, they had no choice if they were looking for a warm-up.

Who could blame them, other than epidemiologists? It was nearly one year ago that the world shut down for fear of the coronavirus. The Football Championship Subdivision season in the fall was largely postponed and there were no postseason playoffs.

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz greets fans before kickoff against Youngstown State at the Fargodome on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz greets fans before kickoff against Youngstown State at the Fargodome on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

NDSU's lone game last fall, against Central Arkansas at the dome, was attended by only 471 family and friends of Bison players. While the result was old hat, a hard-fought but comfortable NDSU victory, everything else surrounding that game was not. The usually rocking Fargodome was quiet, the parking lots were vacant, the atmosphere at the contest was more pall than celebration.

Sunday's game was different. More normal, even if the calendar begged to differ. An announced crowd of 6,578 filled the dome by one-third and rousted up enough noise to make the Bison's 25-7 victory over the Penguins feel at least somewhat — here's that word again — normal.

Maybe it's a case of sports fans, and humanity in general, so badly wanting things to again feel ordinary. Maybe they're willing to take a health risk to make that happen.

In a nod to the real-world realities, the dome's announcer called for a moment of silence before kickoff to honor those lost to COVID, social justice violence and mental health issues.

The Bison locked arms during the national anthem, with no players kneeling like they did against Central Arkansas last fall. So that controversy was avoided.

As for the game itself, meh. The No. 1-ranked Bison were pedestrian in victory. Noland, who replaced soon-to-be NFL draft pick Trey Lance, completed only nine passes for 74 yards. There were few electric plays, even from star wide receiver Christian Watson.

North Dakota State fans arrive at the Fargodome for the game against Youngstown State on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State fans arrive at the Fargodome for the game against Youngstown State on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

The fans, excited to begin the game, were silent for most of the second half. Bored, even, by the lack of action.

Bison head coach Matt Entz expects things will get better with his young team.

"It's been like spring ball with a game at the end of it," he said. "Now we're getting into a regular game-week preparation. It's about getting into that routine."

The routine of NDSU winning continues, even if the calendar looks unusual.