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KOLPACK: It's as if the Bison were playing defense with 12 guys

Nick DeLuca of North Dakota State grabs Jaelon Acklin of Western Illinois during their football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 4
Caleb Butler of North Dakota State catches Aaron Diggs of Western Illinois during their football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 4
Members of the North Dakota State Gold Star Marching band line up to perform before the Western Illinois football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 4
The North Dakota State defensive line blocks a field goal attempt by Western Illinois during their football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service4 / 4

FARGO—The North Dakota State school record for tackles in a game is 29 by linebacker Grant Olson, set in the 2012 Division I FCS playoffs against Wofford. If Olson were by some miracle to find a time machine and get another year of eligibility this season, he may have to share the tackling wealth.

The Bison send so many defenders at a team these days that it's almost hard to sort them all out.

On Saturday afternoon, Oct. 21, before the 51st straight crowd of at least 18,000 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, James Hendricks, Caleb Butler and Robbie Grimsley tied for the team lead in tackles with five each. That kind of balance was more than enough to throw Western Illinois off its game in a 24-12 victory that vaulted NDSU into sole possession of the Missouri Valley Football Conference lead.

Western was no slouch coming in, either, averaging 41 points a game against pretty good competition. But it was if the Bison were playing the Canadian pro game on defense with 12 guys and the Leathernecks had the American maximum of 11.

"I thought for the amount of offense we had to defend the guys did a pretty good job," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman.

Keeping the Western offense out of the end zone is more than a pretty good job. The Leathernecks scored on an interception return for a touchdown in the first half and two field goals and that was it.

The Bison threw a shutout in the second half.

That's what good teams do. It's like a baseball team. There will be games where the hitters just don't connect, but if you have good pitching and defense, you should be in every game.

"The bottom line is they have the combination of a good scheme and good players," said WIU head coach Charlie Fisher. "It's hard to get big plays on them."

The longest run by a Leathernecks running back all day was eight yards. They averaged just 1.3 yards per carry and finished with 31 yards rushing on 23 attempts. That's not going to get it done in this league.

Western Illinois quarterback Sean McGuire came in with the reputation of shredding some teams along the way this season, but he was really able to make just one big play—a 45-yard pass to Jaelon Acklin in the fourth quarter.

That drive stalled on two incompletions on third- and fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line. McGuire probably should have connected with Isaiah LeSure on fourth down, but overthrew him.

"We knew they had a really explosive offense," said Bison linebacker Nick DeLuca. "They have a lot of playmaking ability, you could see it on film. The big focus for us was to try and limit that."

DeLuca continued his return from an early-season knee injury. He's not quite 100 percent, yet. Neither is senior defensive tackle Nate Tanguay, who Klieman said had his knee "drained" this week and should be getting better as the season goes along. Tanguay had ACL surgery at the end of last season.

So that just adds to the possibilities. NDSU held down the Leathernecks with their best two defensive players still not at 100 percent.

"They keep getting better every week," said NDSU quarterback Easton Stick of his defense. "We know what they're capable of."

The defensive backfield has been solid all year with its experience. But the defensive line and linebackers are catching up to their level, also.

Sophomore defensive tackle Cole Karcz is turning into a difference maker, getting in on two quarterback sacks. The Bison are rotating so many players that they're not needing Tanguay to play an entire game.

"Being able to rotate keeps us all flying around," Karcz said. "I thought we had a pretty good matchup coming in, just with the speed of the defensive line."

And the Bison got senior Matt Plank back at linebacker for the first time since the Eastern Washington game. With the emergence of freshman Jabril Cox, the Bison appear to be handling the loss of injured starter Dan Marlette just fine.

"Matt is healthy and that's a big key for us," Klieman said.

Plank had one tackle. So did All-American safety Tre Dempsey. That's a testament to the wealth on defense.

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.
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