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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 10 2011

Schnepf: Defense leads way as Bison eliminate Lehigh

Fargo - Lehigh football coaches could’ve passed for UPS truck drivers Saturday in the Fargodome. Clad in their brown-and-tan outfits, topped off with a brown hat, the coaches from Bethlehem, Pa., certainly could’ve used some sort of special delivery against North Dakota State’s defense.

“What can brown do for you?”

Not much when the Lehigh coaching staff opted to send its All-American quarterback to the sideline – when its offense was knocking on the door to cut into a 17-0 Bison lead late in the third quarter of an Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game.

Instead, the UPS drivers tried the Tim Tebow approach with backup quarterback Michael Colvin.

After he ran for 3 yards, he scrambled and floated a pass into the end zone and right into the mitts of Bison linebacker Preston Evans.

Game over. The Bison won 24-0, advancing to next week’s semifinals.

It marked the first time this season that Lehigh’s offense, one of the most explosive in the nation, was shut out. It marked the first time a Bison defense posted a shutout in the playoffs since 1990.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we were going to shut them out,” said NDSU defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton. “It’s hard to pitch a shutout against anybody, let alone against a team with a quarterback that talented.”

Hazelton was not referring to Colvin, who failed miserably at his Tebow impersonation. He was talking about Chris Lum, who came to Fargo with passing numbers impressive enough to make him one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman.

So were the Bison surprised to see Lum on the sidelines when Lehigh was threatening to make this a game?

“We were not surprised they ran the play,” said Bison defensive end Cole Jirek, referring to a Wildcat formation Lehigh has used before this season. “But we were surprised to see him throw it.”

The quarterback switch had the majority of the 18,111 Fargodome fans saying thank you and the small section of Lehigh fans scratching their heads. Then again, it was Hazelton’s defense that had Lum not only scratching his head in confusion, but nursing some aches and pains from all the hits he endured.

It was all part of a master plan that Hazelton and his associates put together to stop a nationally ranked offense for the second straight week in these playoffs. Last week, the Bison stymied James Madison’s running game. Saturday, they dusted off the pass-defense playbook and held Lum to less than 300 passing yards and 30 completions for only the fourth time this season.

With the win, the Bison will focus on run defense again when they host a semifinal game either Friday night or Saturday against Georgia Southern – a team that averages 332 yards rushing per game, which ranks second in the nation.

“Out with the nickel package again,” Hazelton said, referring to a five-defensive back setup designed to stop passing teams. “It would be kind of nice if we could string the same game plans all together. But it doesn’t work that way.”

What has been working is NDSU’s defense, ever since head coach Craig Bohl named Hazelton his defensive coordinator after the 2009 nonplayoff season. It helped the Bison reach last year’s quarterfinals.

And this year, they are within one win of reaching the school’s first national championship game since that 1990 season. Prior to Saturday’s game, the defense ranked second nationally in scoring (giving up only two touchdowns per game), seventh in interceptions (18), 18th in quarterback sacks (33) and 23rd in total defense (320 yards).

Most of those numbers will improve after pitching the first Bison playoff shutout since the 1990 47-0 win over Cal-Poly, after picking off three Lehigh passes, after coming up with three quarterback sacks.

“Getting to the quarterback, that was the key,” Hazelton said, referring not only to the three sacks but the 15 registered quarterback hurries and the numerous hits Lum took.

Was it the best defense Lum has faced all season?

“In terms of not ever really feeling comfortable in the pocket … yes,” said Lum, who was without his favorite target Ryan Spadola, the All-American wide receiver who was suspended for this game for tweeting a racial slur.

Those who have followed Lehigh all season said Spadola’s presence wouldn’t have made much of a difference, not against this Bison defense.

“They threw everything at us,” Lum said. “They were relentless.”

Relentless with senior leaders like Evans, Coulter Boyer and Chad Willson who combined for 14 tackles. Then there were sophomores who gained valuable playoff experience last year like Jirik, Marcus Williams, Leevon Perry, Grant Olson and Ryan Drevlow – who combined for 17 tackles.

Then throw in freshmen who have blossomed this season like Christian Dudzik, Kyle Emanuel, Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn – who each came up with big plays when the Bison needed them, especially after the Bison offense turned the ball over three times, nearly half the number it had made all season.

A perfect example came when Lehigh was threatening to score first. Littlejohn, blitzing from his linebacker position, leaped by a block, spun in midair, kept his balance and pressured Lum into throwing a fourth-down incompletion.

“Those are the kind of plays you really can’t coach,” Hazelton said.

But make no mistake: Hazelton has proven he can coach. He learned from the best – playing strong safety at Fort Lewis College in Colorado under former Bison Casey Bradley and Todd Wash, both of whom are now defensive coaches in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. He coached under Bradley at NDSU as well.

“I still call them up for advice all the time,” Hazelton said. “I’m not cocky enough to think I know it all.”

But he certainly knows how deliver during playoff time – and a little bit better than those UPS truck drivers.


Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at

(701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com.

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com