Updated: Aug 17, 2019
Why the Bison are still the top choice in FCS for 2019
This article isn’t for the casual fan who joyfully follows the Herd but doesn’t care to dig too deeply on why they have accomplished what NO OTHER football program has ever done. It’s okay to be that fan. I compare it to beer and wine drinking. Most aren’t connoisseurs but are still joyful partakers without caring about what barleys or hops make for the best beers or how the acidic nature of certain soils effects the taste of the grapes that make fine wines. They just know the product is pleasing to their palates. Being a former Bison player who had the privilege of being on a team that had a 35-game unbeaten streak, I am an admitted fanatic. I lived under Bison pride, shared it with teammates. My high school coach, Sam Neis, was on the original turn around teams under Darrel Mudra and when he coached the Bison offensive line, he gave them the moniker that still exists today, “The Rams”. We knew from Denis Isrow what “once a Bison, always a Bison” is all about. My head coach, Ron Erhardt, went on to be the offensive coordinator on three NFL Super Bowl teams (winning twice). It is in that spirit I write this article/blog. Please feel free to share it with those who have a deep appreciation of being a Bison fan.
Why has the Herd done what no other team in football has ever accomplished the last eight years? The biggest differentiator has been the Code Green defensive system. How superior has the Bison defense been? I am going to look at the other top playoff teams during this streak. Wouldn’t these be the best FCS comparison?
Let’s start with Sam Houston State. They along with New Hampshire and South Dakota State have been in the playoffs seven out of the last eight years. They have appeared in two national championships and three semi-finals. Their 23 playoff games are the most behind the Bison’s thirty-one. They have won 16 games and lost 7. Four times the Herd has been the nail in the coffin to end their season. Over these eight years the Bearcats have given up over 14,000 more total yards on defense than the Bison They have averaged almost 395 yards given up to our 275. (NDSU is 112-8 over the last eight years, so I take the yardage and point differences and spread them over how many games the Bison have played). Folks that’s over 8.2 miles. They played one great year of defense (2011) and one good year (2012). The rest they have given up over 425 YPG. In our four playoff victories over them we have achieved a 36.5 to 8.75 margin of victory. The Rams have carved their defense up to the tune of averaging 276 YPG rushing. SHSU’s teams have been known for their prolific offenses. What did Code Green dial up? They stopped the Bearcat’s cold in their tracks. Taking a team averaging almost 40 PPG against all other opponents and holding them to under nine. Sam Houston State isn’t even in the same universe when it comes to playing defense.
New Hampshire has played in 15 playoff games during our streak of greatness, winning eight and losing seven. They have the same total defense stats as Sam Houston, giving up 395 YPG to our average of 275. Again, that’s more than 8 miles of additional yardage by opposing offenses. They have averaged giving up 24.8 PPG to Code Green’s 13.2. If we had given up points at this rate over 120 games, we would have had to yield an additional 1392 points. We have faced them once in the 2013 semi-finals and scored 52 points on them. They scored 14 points.
We are all familiar with the Blue Bunnies from SDSU. We are 4-0 in the playoffs versus them. They, like New Hampshire are 8-7 in the playoffs over the same time frame. Their total defense has yielded 370 YPG. This is better than Sam Houston or New Hampshire but is still over 11,000 yards more than our defense and 1092 points (22.3 to 13.2 PPG). In our 4 playoff victories over the Jackrabbits we have averaged scoring 32.75 PPG. That’s not good defense. Even coach Steg’s, in his preseason interview, said they must play better defense if they want to go all the way. So, these next two FCS playoff frequent flyers, SDSU and NH, don’t have near the defensive prowess of the Bison.
The next two programs, James Madison and Jacksonville State have six playoff appearances during our streak of greatness. They have played better defense than SHSU, NH and SDSU, but still don’t come within 2.6 miles (JSU) and 4.2 miles (JMU) of our defense. The Gamecocks have given up 888 and JMU 924 more points than Code Green using my 120-game matrix
The UNI Panthers, Eastern Washington Eagles and Wofford Terriers all have appeared in five playoffs with UNI and Wofford playing better defense, but not any better than JMU or JSU and the Eagles have played the worst defense for any of the teams with five or more playoff appearances (giving up more than 10 miles more offense and over1600 points). The Bison have amassed these differences while playing the toughest schedule over this time frame and are in by far the toughest conference (the Missouri Valley consistently outranks the Colonial Athletic Association and Big Sky in Sagarin and usually is rated above two to five of the FBS conferences).
Why this lengthy diatribe on the inferiority of these other defenses compared to the Bison’s? First, I have only seen lip service paid to this defensive domination versus other FCS programs in the sports commentary world and haven’t come across any in depth statistical analysis of how great a difference Code Green has performed at and what produces this big of statistical variation. Second, I am establishing the basis for the purpose of this article, why I am picking the Bison as favorites to win another FCS National Championship.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, Code Green is a defensive system. The Bison recruit players to fit this system. Each player and position group has to perform its function. Great defense has always been a priority at NDSU. Have some of the schemes changed over the years? Yes, but the fundamentals have remained the same. The two defensive tackles I played behind were NFL quality (one played in the NFL and the other was killed in a hunting accident during his senior season but was pegged a third-round pick). Nellie (Steve Nelson) played defensive end and nobody could block him on pass rush. He switched to LB and became an All-Pro in the NFL. We had great DB’s like Joe Cichy and Brad Trom. When has NDSU ever had bad linebacking?
Where are we at in 2019? I don’t see this system falling off significantly. Is this based on hope only? In no manner is this the wishful thinking by a biased fan. What’s been the variation in the defensive stats the last eight years? Very little. We don’t have one year where we performed below the standards of excellence I have laid out. Under 325 yards of total defense, 125 yards of rushing given up and under 20 points yielded per game. In fact, if we were to take the semi-finalist teams for these eight years and were to cherry pick the best defensive stats from these other three teams (the Bison have been to 8 straight semis), they would still fall short of the Bison. I did this and here is what it shows. The Sam Houston Teams of 2011 & 2012, Towson in 2013, Illinois State in 2014, Jacksonville State in 2015, Youngstown in 2016 (no, it wasn’t JMU). JMU in 2017 and Maine last year had the best defensive stats other than the Herd. These combined defenses would have still given up more than 2.6 miles of additional offense and 756 points!!!!
A good way to illustrate what I mean by the Bison Defensive System is how the new defensive staff personnel are being assimilated into the program. I have heard all of them on interviews say they are asking the holdover coaches and the junior and senior players how it is done at NDSU. The new defensive coordinator, Dave Braun, said he isn’t trying to bring change to what has been vastly successful. Is that what is happening at JMU with a whole new staff (none of which has ties to JMU either as a player or coach) that is installing a new offense, defense and special teams? In spring ball and now at fall camp, all the players are like freshmen, learning a new system.
Another point of stability is that in reality this is the fifth time we are repeating the process. The best two years for most players are their junior and senior years. Yes, some sophomores and a few freshmen fill in the depth chart, but the bulk of the work is being done by a core of juniors and seniors. In eight years, the Bison have repeated this turnover four times. Last year JMU was experiencing the refill for the first time off the core of their championship team of 2016 and finalist group of 2017. The 2018 team was good, but not a championship level team (9-4).
You might be saying, Ron, this is all well and good, but it is looking backwards. What about this year’s team is championship grade? First and foremost, our roster isn’t depleted. NDSU has just completed its fifth straight year of being clearly atop the Missouri Valley in recruiting. I think it is the sixth year, because you can’t convince me that the 2014 class of Stick, Menard, Urzendowski, Sheppard, Allison, Tanner Volson, Luke Bacon, Stanley Jones, Caleb Butler, Steidel, Jordheim, Lance Dunn, Nate Jensen, Blake Williams and Connor Collins was the third best class in the MVFC. It was the core of another national championship. Who was better?
Let’s do a position group analysis. As I have always stated, defense wins championships and you must be good in the trenches. In the Defensive Tackle Room, the task in the spring and now in the fall is finding rotational players, not backups. We bring back Cole Karcz and Jack Darnell. Both are seniors with lots of snaps under their belt. Last year we rotated 4-5 players. Steidel and Williams graduated, so I think we need at least two replacements in the rotation. We have four good candidates to choose from. Matt Biegler has gotten a lot of praise from Entz and as a junior with more reps to his name, is a good candidate (he is 6’3” 284 lbs). The other three candidates are Lane Tucker (6’4” 278 lbs), Costner Ching (6’3” 280 lbs) and Dylan Evans (6’4” 286 lbs). Tucker was the top ranked high school recruit in Wyoming when he signed with the Herd out of high school (a rare honor for a defensive lineman). Ching came in as a TE/FB. He actually took game snaps as such last year. Jim Kramer has done it again. He has taken and grown two players into DT’s (Ching and Biegler). Opposing offenses won’t be blowing thru our DT’s!
I am really excited about the Defensive End Room. We graduated three from last year, Menard, Stanley Jones and Caleb Butler. Out of last year’s rotation we get back Tuszka, Waege and Logan McCormick (he was redshirted last year, but in his four games played, they were meaningful snaps). Tuszka is an all-American caliber stud. Waege is bigger than Menard, but very fast and is also a good pass rusher. McCormick is bigger and more athletic than either Butler or Jones We are adding into this mix two red-shirt freshman. Bison coaches over the years have given very little hype to up and coming younger players. They must earn their stripes. When coaches comment on younger players, I take notice. In recent memory they have given us warning on Urzendowski, Bruce Anderson, Jabril Cox and Dillon Radunz. They are giving the same heads up on Bartholomew Ogbu. This is the biggest, fastest and most athletic DE room in Bison program history.
The Linebacker Room has the best defensive player in the FCS (Jabril Cox) and several unproven replacements. Should this be a big concern? No. When’s the last time we had bad linebacking? Stumpf and Pierre Gee Tucker were untested when the baton was passed to them. Last year Marlett and Jordheim were very good, even though they were considered question marks by those outside the program. Surrounding Cox will be Jackson Hankey, he is taking over in the middle with more experience than Marlett did last year. Dan only had 10 tackles in 2017 (lost most of season thru a knee injury) Hankey played in 14 games and had 27 tackles. I also am going to listen to the best defensive coaches in the country when they say this kid is Grant Olsonish in his smarts and knowing how to align the defense pre-snap. It sounds from the coaches that Aaron Mercadel is the front runner for the other LB position. Aaron missed all season last year but has been granted that year back by the NCAA. He has been very good on special teams and has shown a real nose for the ball. Jackson Brown and Jasir Cox are also in the mix for playing time. I see no drop off in LB play in 2019.
Now to the Defensive Back Room. Bridges and Hayes are the two cornerbacks that started the 2017 National Championship game. James Hendricks comes back at free safety as a pre-season All Conference pick. Michael Tutsie is replacing Grimsley at strong safety but showed last year that he is up to the task. The back ups at safety are good with Dawson Weber at free safety and James Kaczor the back up at strong safety and a special team’s guy. Destin Talbert made it to a number two corner back last year as a true freshman and was good on special teams. There are numerous quality athletes to fill any remaining CB needs. The coaches have said they are deep and talented in the defensive backfield rooms.
Where does this leave us as a defense heading into 2019? I am going on record as predicting that at the end of the year our defensive statistics will not exceed any of the norms of excellence in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense (325 YPG, 125 YPG and 20 PPG). I also believe they will not exceed any of our yearly averages from the last eight years.
The schedule also favors us. Three of the four non-conference games serve up pedestrian offenses. Butler’s roster is undermanned when facing us in the twin cities for the opener. UND was very good in running the ball last year but is changing their offensive scheme to be more pass oriented and lose two four-year starters at running back (Santiago and Olivera). The Hawks better hope Johannsson doesn’t go down with an injury because they are thin behind him. Last year they only played two good defenses (Washington and Weber State). They scored only 16.5 PPG, averaged 311 YPG and gained and rushed for 143.5 YPG (against all other foes they averaged 247 YPG rushing). Oh, and by the way, their QB has never played at the Dome. Delaware played bad offense last year (108th in rushing and 107th in total offense and only averaged scoring 24.4 PPG). Also, four of our MVFC foes will be starting new QB’s, so there is a chance offensive totals will be somewhat lower in league play. Code Green is going to shine for the 9th straight year. Put it in the bank!!
How are we on the offensive side of the ball? Back to the starting point, the trenches. How do the Rams shape up for 2019? We have returning the two key spots of any offensive line, the offensive tackles. At left tackle (LT) it is Dillon Radunz, a pre-season all conference pick. At right tackle (RT) is Zack Johnson. Another pre-season all conference and at several FCS lists, an all-American pick. Both are considered to be NFL prospects. Also, back is our sixth man from last year’s rotation, Cordell Volson. The interesting thing here is that Cordell is going to replace Zack at RT. Do you really think the Bison coaches are going to do this to down grade RT? Or is it that the team will be better by moving Zack to right guard and Cordell at RT? Both coach Entz and offensive line coach, Blazek, have said this is a 9-10 deep Bison Offensive Line group. The five that are pegged to start average over 310 LBS. I don’t think there is going to be any drop off from the Rams. With the stable of running backs we have we should fall somewhere in our last six years of rushing, 235 to 286 YPG.
Speaking about the Running Back Room. The returning four of Ty Brooks (7.9 Yards Per Carry), Cofield (5.8 YPC), Dimitri Williams (7.2 YPC) and Saybein Clark (6.5 YPC) have a combined 2450 career yards of rushing. With what I consider to be the best offensive FCS line in the country, these backs shouldn’t have trouble continuing the tradition of a sound Bison running game.
There will be no drop off in the Crew Chief Room (Tight Ends and Fullbacks). Ben Ellefson is now a senior and had a breakout junior campaign catching 14 passes for 8 touchdowns. He is a bad mismatch for opposing defenses because he is a dominant run blocker at 6’3” and 250 lbs but is athletic with good hands. This year we add two studs in Josh Babicz 6’6” and 253 lbs and Noah Gindorff at 6’6” and 262 lbs. They both are excellent run blockers, fast with good hands. These three will be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators to scheme against.
At Fullback Grant Malstrom returns for his senior year. He is a masher at opening holes for the running backs. There will be a rotating in with at least one of the tight ends functioning as the fullback. Also, Hunter Luepke, 6”1” 249 lbs, will join the rotation. He has good ball skills after racking up 5,770 all- purpose yards, 4,452 rushing yards and 82 touchdowns in his high school career in Wisconsin.
I do not see the Wide Receiver Room as a problem in 2019. Yes, they don’t have a ton of experience, but they are long on talent. Christian Watson, Phoenix Sproles, Zach Mathis and D J Stewart are good talents who should fit well into the Bison system. Think of how NDSU developed Darrius Sheppard. He fits into a system. He knows how to BLOCK (a lost skill with most receivers). As per the talk from the coaches with the Packers, he is able to fill a lot of rolls and is very knowledgeable. We have never had a problem with developing wide receivers to fit our pass efficiency styled attack. Mark my words, Noah Pauley will coach his boys up this season.
Now to the Quarterback Room. Bison Nation has been spoiled at the QB position the last nine years. Brock Jensen was a gamer and had enough skill to find time in the Canadian Football League. He also was the winningest FCS QB with 48 wins until Stick broke it last year at 49. How many FBS schools have had their last two QB’s as draft choices? Are we going to see a big drop off here?
Here is why I don’t think QB is going to be a problem. Brock Jensen, his red shirt freshman year, didn’t have near the offensive talent surrounding him as this year’s team and still the Herd made it to the quarter finals (a bad call kept them from the semi’s). The 2011 team wasn’t an offensive juggernaut. We were efficient, controlled the clock and played EXCEPTIONAL DEFENSE. Folks, that’s all we need out of the QB this year. We don’t need whoever starts to win games for us. We need a smart decision maker to play well within the system. We forget that Wentz took over as a fourth year Junior. He won us two games (SDSU and IL. State in the 2014 playoffs). Zeb Noland has more game experience than when Wentz was handed the ball.
Wentz’s senior year was curtailed by the broken wrist. Stick took over for 8 games during his red shirt freshman season. Did he come out winging it like Wentz? No, he progressed within the system. He used his run skills and the pass package increased as he gained experience until the Championship Game. What were his stats during these 8 games? First, the Bison went 8-0, including 3 playoff victories with Stick behind center. Only one of the teams was bad (Mo. State). The other 7 would rank in the top 25 of FCS teams that were playoff eligible via the Sagarin rating system (it is the gold standard). The margin of victory in these eight games was 37.1 to 12.5. Only two of the 8 games were close. So. IL on the road we won 35-29 and Youngstown State we prevailed late 27-24 on the road in what is remembered as Pelini’s meltdown game.
The Bison started the 2015 season replacing all three LB’s and 3 of 4 defensive backs. We got burned in the first game at Montana 38-35 and after Wentz broke his wrist in the first half of the USD game, we blew a 21-0 lead and lost 24-21 (I believe they made a coaching error in not inserting Stick in the second half). We started 2015 with 4 wins and 2 losses. Our margin of victory thru six games was 31.7 to 20. When Wentz went down, Code Green went up. We gave up 311.2 YPG thru the first six games. Facing better offenses, the last eight games with Stick, before the National Championship game, we gave up 248 YPG. As shown above PPG dropped from 20 to 12.5.
Stick only averaged 143 YPG in passing while Wenz averaged 206 YPG. With 61 less passes thrown than Wentz, both Stick and Wentz had only 4 interceptions. Stick ran for 498 yards to Wentz’s 294. In short, Stick grew into his role while Code Green became dominant. Look at what Code Green did to Jacksonville State in the Championship Game in Frisco We took a team that was scoring 53.7 PPG, gaining 625.3 YPG in total offense, of which 432.7 YPG was rushing in their first three playoff victories and shut them down to 204 yards of total offense, 147 yards rushing and 10 points. I even heard whispers from some of our pundits on how where we even going to stay in the game with these bad boys. Lesson learned? DON’T DOUBT CODE GREEN!!
In summary, do you really think Randy Hedberg isn’t going to coach up either Trey Lance or Zeb Noland into a good field general? Would you trade our QB room for SDSU’s or UNI’s? Would you trade our offensive line for any in the country? JMU (the favorite of Hero sports over the Bison) has given up 50% more sacks the last three years. Just saying.
As stated earlier, I believe this year’s schedule will allow for early season development. We don’t face a really good defense until IL State in the fifth game. Butler is too small in both the defensive and offensive lines to hang with us. UND played average defense last year and loses it’s three big men at Nose Guard and DE. Those three slots in the middle average under 255 lbs (our offensive line averages over 310 lbs, do the math). Also, their offense sputtered against the only two good defenses they played last year. Until proven otherwise, I think UND is overrated going into 2019. Delaware loses the heart of the defense we shredded last year, and they had a very bad offense. A good program on the road can’t be overlooked, but they have way more question marks than we do. Do you really feel U C Davis can stop our run game at the Dome?
Finally, we have the Kramer factor. We have bigger and better athletes. Jim Kramer’s nutritional and weight training program has no equal at the FCS level. He takes and molds good athletes by putting on “lean weight”. How many teams do you see playing the Bison where the defensive and offensive lineman have pot bellies? That’s why they don’t get the pass rush we do (and the corresponding sacks) and you don’t see their centers, tackles or even their guards pulling out and leading sweeps down field.
Until proven otherwise, we are the superior FCS program heading into 2019.