FRISCO, Texas -- Ever since linebacker Nick DeLuca and the rest of the North Dakota State defense found out they were playing Jacksonville State in the FCS championship, all they heard about were the numbers: Second in FCS in total yards (529). Sixth in points scored (41). Third in rushing yards per game (311.7). Fifth in passing yards (305.5).
“We heard for the last few weeks, all we heard was how explosive their offense is,” DeLuca said. “But that was our motivation: To stop them and limit those plays.”
And on Saturday, a bevy of defensive acumen propelled the Bison to its fifth — and possibly most impressive — championship performance in a 37-10 win over Jacksonville State.
It was a fitting finale for a defense that allowed fewer than 300 total yards in four straight playoff games and one the Bison won't soon forget.
"That's as good a defensive effort as I've seen from a four-game stretch in the playoffs," NDSU coach Chris Klieman said. "Hat's off to coach Entz and the defensive staff, as well as all these defensive players, because I think we have the best defense in all of FCS football this year without question, especially as the season wound down."
After NDSU lost all but four starters on defense this season, many thought this would be the year to knock off the Bison. But after a couple of games, Klieman said the defense began to mesh into the juggarnaut teams feared in the FCS, and the Bison went on an eight-game win streak.
Not only did NDSU limit JSU to its lowest yardage total (204) and lowest points total (10) all season (204), the Bison forced six turnovers to keep the Gamecock offense off the field.
Eli Jenkins, JSU’s electric dual-threat quarterback who averaged 271.1 yards per game, finished well below his usual mark with 147 total yards and only one touchdown. While Jenkins did break break off a few big runs, the Bison bottled him up behind the line of scrimmage and even forced a a few early turnovers to shut down the Gamecock offense.
“We stressed it for three weeks: We needed to hop on him early and try to get him off schedule and stop the run game,” DeLuca said. “And of course, get turnovers and get our offense on the field.”
In the first half alone, the Bison scored 14 points off three JSU turnovers and finished with 21 points off six turnovers.
Almost eight minutes into the game, DeLuca picked off Jenkins at the JSU 28-yard line, setting NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz for an 11-yard score four plays later. Midway though the second quarter, MJ Stumpf scooped up a Jenkins fumble behind the line up scrimmage, which the Bison turned into a King Frazier touchdown on the ensuing possession.
“They were unbelievable,” Wentz said of the defense. “All playoffs, the whole season, the defense doesn't get enough credit. They make our life easier when they keep giving us the ball back.”
The numbers don’t lie and neither did the play on the field for the Bison. On more than several occasions, the NDSU defenders swarmed the ballcarriers, made heads-up tackles or attacked the ball to keep the Gamecocks off their toes and out of the ballgame.
Jenkins' shifty moves solved the Bison defensive puzzle early in the third quarter, when the senior quarterback busted open a huge run up the middle of the defense with nothing but green grass in front of him. To Jenkins — and the everyone else watching — it was an easy touchdown. But almost out of nowhere, NDSU safety Tre Dempsey raced from the far left sideline to make a touchdown-saving tackle at the Bison nine yard line. Though Jenkins scored soon after on another designed run, Dempsey put his defense in position to potentially keep the Gamecocks out of the endzone.
The Bison delivered another possession-killer turnover early in the fourth quarter, when NDSU forced Jenkins out of the pocket and past the line of scrimmage, with no blockers around him, DeLuca laid a beautiful hit on Gamecock quarterback, forcing another fumble that was recovered by Greg Menard deep in JSU territory. Though the Bison gave the ball right back on the next possesion, the defense took the ball right back on an interception by Jordan Champion.
Plays like the ones Dempsey, DeLuca, Menard and Champion made were the reasons why the Bison were in a position to play for another national championship. The old adage of "defense wins championships" might be one of the most overused cliches in the book, but for a team that's won five in a row, it's gospel.