Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Wow, what a ride it has been to be a Bison football fan! Winning six National Championships in the last seven years is a historic feat that NO OTHER TEAM at any level has accomplished. The fact that it has been done thru the gauntlet of a 20-24 team playoff system is almost unreal. As a former Bison player who was part of a 35-game unbeaten streak from 1968 to 1971 under the great coaching leadership of Ron Erhardt, I know what it is to have a target on your back.* To clarify, there were no sudden death’s back then, we tied Eastern Michigan 14-14 to open the 1970 season.
We take Bison Pride seriously. Former players have had the opportunity to mix with current players at each of the six championships in Frisco, TX. With crowds averaging between 250 - 300 former players (no press), this has become a cherished Bison team tradition.
What makes Bison football, Bison football? Exceptional Defense and a Dominating Run Game.
I am aware that having a balanced, smart and efficient passing game is essential to this run game when the opposing defenses want to cheat with more run stoppers in the box, but I will cover that in a future article. Today I want to focus on exceptional defense. I am going to approach this from the statistics that the current run of success has produced against the other top teams in the FCS during this run and a nostalgic look back to the teams in the earlier streak of greatness. This is meant to be an overview. To give credit to all fifty-plus years of Bison greatness would take a book.
Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. Who has had the top FCS winning programs during this whole NDSU streak?
Sam Houston State w/l was 80-22 from 2011 to 2017 (the Bison are 97-8);
Jacksonville State - 67-21;
James Madison - 67-24;
Eastern Washington - 65-25;
New Hampshire - 61-30;
Montana - 57-30.
The Bison have met each of these teams in the playoffs, the regular season or both. Some of these opponents we have met multiple times with Sam Houston facing the Bison four times. In addition to these programs I have added the three biggest Bison competitors from the Missouri Valley: SDSU with a w/l of 60-31 during the reign of terror of the Thundering Herd (2-8 during this period heads up), Illinois State at 56-30 (0-6 during this run) and lastly Northern Iowa at 53-35 (1-7 versus Herd). Think of that, 21 of these three teams 96 losses over seven years were the Bison.
Only James Madison has beaten the Bison during this streak in the playoffs. So, let’s dive in and look at the proposition that defensive dominance has led to this fantastic outcome. First, what do I mean by dominating defense? A team needs to rank in the top ten of FCS football programs eligible for the postseason playoffs in the defensive category published by the NCAA. I don’t care how good the Ivy League is or the SWAC or MEAC (unless one of these teams that doesn’t make it to the Celebration Bowl gets in the playoffs, which might happen with N C A&T this year). While there is a plethora of defensive statistics, I am going to concentrate on the following three: total defense, run defense and scoring defense. BTW, I purposely exclude pass defense because If I am good at run defense, but lousy at pass defense my total defense will suffer.
To be dominant in total defense, a team cannot give up more than 325 yards per game (YPG). For run defense, the standard is 125 YPG or less, and in scoring defense, the line in the sand is under 20 points per game.
How do these other great teams stack up? Only Illinois State averaged under 125 YPG (123.13) in rushing defense for the whole seven years. UNI was next at 130.39 YPG, then JMU at 133.17, followed by Jacksonville State at 137.84. For a seven-year average, these are the top of the line programs in consistently stopping the run. How were the Bison? They averaged 104.29 YPG. We were the best of the best! We gave up over 2500 yards less than Illinois State in 105 games.
Let’s now look at total defense. None of the top teams averaged under 325 YPG for the seven-year period in question. UNI was the best at 335.26 YPG. Mark Farley, as we know in the Valley, always has a snarly defense that’s willing to punch you in the nose hard. Next best was Illinois State at 338.51 YPG. Followed by Jacksonville State and JMU at 341.97 and 342.5 respectively. The rest of the teams were above 370 YPG (very average). I am not sure Eastern Washington can even spell defense. They had a seven-year average total defense of 438.77 YPG (UGH!!).
How did our Bison do? We averaged 273.69 YPG! Better than 60 yards less than the runner-up. That's over 6,300 yards in 105 games.
Now the purpose of defense is stopping the other team from scoring, so how did the stats for scoring come out? Not one of the other teams averaged under 20 points per game. UNI was closest at 20.61 PPG. They averaged under 20 PPG in 4 of the 7 years. Again, very salty. This is why the Missouri Valley is the toughest FCS conference. JMU, Illinois State and Jacksonville St. were tightly bunched at 22.1, 22.67 and 22.54. I would give the nod to Illinois State because the level of competition they played is higher than JMU and Jacksonville St. (see my other article: When Equal Football Stats Aren’t Equal).
How has NDSU fared the last seven years in scoring defense? Nobody is even close. We have given up on average 13.3 PPG. This equates to a touchdown less per game when compared to the other top FCS programs. We are essentially talking about 735 points less during this run of excellence.
What type of offenses have the Bison defense stopped? The best way to analyze this is to look at what NDSU has done in the playoffs. These numbers should blow your mind. We have played in 27 playoff games. We are 26-1 against the best teams in the FCS in the last seven years. In taking the entire season statistics for our opponents (excluding games played against us) and comparing those stats with what the Bison did against these very same teams in the playoffs, we end up with an overwhelming Bison advantage. These playoff teams have averaged 214.3 YPG in rushing (this is over 70,000 yards of combined rushing, accumulated in over 330 games - so it is an extensive sample). NDSU has held these same teams to 117.5 YPG, just a little over our average for all 105 games played from 2011 to 2017. This fits well within the definition of exceptional defense. No one plays the run better than NDSU. This is the reason it is said that defense wins championships.
These same playoff games also underscore a phenomenal record of total Bison defense. NDSU’s playoff opponents averaged against all their adversaries 436.1 YPG. By the way, both the rushing and overall offensive numbers rank in the top ten of FCS offensive team statistics (when used in combo with rushing numbers and total offense). BTW, some pass-happy teams come up with 500 total yards but don’t come near 200 yards rushing. Code Green has held these potent playoff offenses to 292.7 YPG. Very firmly holding to my definition of exceptional defense.
Finally, how did these teams score against the Bison? These high powered offenses averaged 34.2 PPG against all of their opponents (excluding the Herd). Code Green dialed these high flyers down to 11.9 PPG. Nobody has that type of defensive resume. What is impressive is we maintain these types of numbers even against our FBS foes. Did Kansas kick our butts? Did K State run it down our throat? Surely Iowa beat us in the run game? How about them Golden Goofers (I mean Gophers)?
This type of defense is what Bison football is all about. The 1964 and 65 turn-around teams set this type of standard. My high school coach, Sam Neis, played in this transition and later coached the Bison offensive line and gave them the moniker "The Rams." My linebacker coach at SU, Ardell Wiegandt was a previous stalwart linebacker on these teams. The 35 game run I had the privilege of being a partaker in looked the same when looking at these defensive statistics. We held the opponents to 109.6 YPG in rushing.** The total defense for the streak was 246.4 YPG, and the overall scoring for all 35 games was 37.3 to 9.9. These statistics were amassed against old North Central Conference foes like UND, UNI, SDSU, and USD, plus Montana, Montana State and N. Arizona, which are all FCS now. Our streak also included four teams that are now FBS (N. Illinois twice, Arkansas State and Eastern Michigan).
Looking back at the championship teams of the mid 70’s, then the 80’s and 90’s the numbers will look the same. The Bison are built on playing exceptional defense!!! Nobody else compares to this standard of excellence and the tradition continues now in 2018.
* I participated in games 11 - 35.
** I only have stats for first 30 games, couldn’t find box scores for last 5 in the streak, but since we outscored our opponents in these 5 games 34.2 to 6.9, I feel the numbers would be close to the first 30 games in yardage.