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McFeely: Wofford's vaunted option no match for Bison defense

North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox pressures Wofford quarterback Brandon Goodson during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
North Dakota State strong safety Robbie Grimsley snares Wofford's Blake Morgan during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
North Dakota State's Aaron Steidl hits Wofford quarterback Brandon Goodson during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
North Dakota State's Ty Brooks rips off a big gain against Wofford during the FCS quarterfinals at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

Fargo

North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman opened his postgame press conference by thanking the Bison scout team, those players who imitate the week's opponent in practice. Klieman said the scout team offense was key in getting the Bison defense ready for Wofford's intricate triple-option offense.

This may be true. Who is anybody to doubt a coach who's won two Football Championship Subdivision national championships and owns a 52-6 record in four seasons as NDSU's coach?

But could a frequent observer of the Bison offer another possible scenario without being viewed as too pretentious?

Here goes: It also helps that NDSU has defensive players like—but not limited to—Jabril Cox, Nick DeLuca, Robbie Grimsley and Tre Dempsey.

Wofford entered this playoff quarterfinal as one of the top rushing teams in FCS as well as one of the top third-down conversion teams. The Terriers limped out of Fargo with their tails between their legs, running for only 134 yards and going 1 of 12 on third down.

You want a recipe for losing to 42-10 at the Fargodome, that would be it. It didn't help that Wofford was without its top running back, Lennox McAfee, who missed the game with a knee injury. Nor was it helpful that the Terriers, as head coach Mike Ayers said, had a "debacle" in the last 5 minutes of the first half that led to two Bison touchdowns. But on this day, it would not have mattered.

The Bison defense was just that good, as always.

"They are assignment sound and coached really well. Then when you fall behind you have to switch it up a little bit and you can't run the ball as much when you get down," Wofford quarterback Brandon Goodson said. "That kind of changed our view of the game. We just tried to work with what we had and they were a little bit better today."

Two plays midway through the third quarter were indicative of the day. On second-and-2 from the Wofford 43, Goodson rolled right and tried to dump a short pass to fullback Andre Stoddard. Problem was, Cox rocketed through the line of scrimmage untouched and forced Goodson to make a decision: Get rid of the ball too early or get splattered to the turf like a squirrel on the highway. Goodson wisely chose the former.

On the next play, Wofford tried to run the option to the right side and Goodson got the ball to running back Blake Morgan. Cox and DeLuca sprinted to the play, burying Morgan for a six-yard loss. Grimsley swooped in, just in case there was something to clean up. The play had zero chance of succeeding.

"They fly to the ball really well. They have great team speed," Goodson said. "When you have good players and have a good scheme, you're going to be a pretty good team."

There's just so much speed, for which NDSU rarely gets credit. Call it the Northern Team Stereotype. It's not true. Never has been.

"We can run on defense. We can run really well on defense. That was shown today," Klieman said.

DeLuca has been a star from the moment he stepped on the field, and now the redshirt freshman Cox has given the Bison a second large and speedy linebacker. The Bison put Cox on the wide side of the field against the Wofford option, confident his speed would allow him to cover the extra ground.

"He's a long, athletic guy that can really run and is hard to cut-block. I thought Jabril was really good," Klieman said. "Having the seasoned veterans like Tre and Robbie who understand the game of football so well, how in option football it's a numbers game. How they would show one way and roll the opposite way basically on the snap of the football to get them to go where we wanted them to was really big."

A person affiliated with Wofford was leaving the Fargodome, the ugly evidence of the game still showing on the big video boards, and offered the observation that this version of NDSU's defense is much better than the 2012 version that helped the Bison beat the Terriers 14-7 in a tight, physical game.

"This team is winning it all," he said.

There will be three other teams in the semifinals who will dispute that, as they should. But this much we know: Whoever plays the Bison will have to solve a physical, fast defense that might be as good as any we've seen in this seven-year run of excellence.

Yes, the scout team preparation is important. But so are the athletes on the field and the likes of DeLuca, Cox, Grimsley, Dempsey and Co. are hard to top in FCS.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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