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Jeff Kolpack, Published September 04 2012

Phil Hansen: Bison defense has potential to be great

FARGO - It’s only in Missouri Valley Football Conference games where North Dakota State players and their opponents meet at midfield for a pre-game handshake.

It’s a gesture of goodwill and sportsmanship.

As for non-conference games, the Bison took a different mode of introducing themselves to Robert Morris University (Pa.) players last Saturday night. The NDSU defensive players did most of their greeting in the RMU backfield.

It’s a defense that returns most of its players and led the Bison to a Division I Football Championship Subdivision national title last year. There is strength up front, athleticism and toughness at linebacker and playmaking ability in the secondary.

Speed is everywhere.

With that list of superlatives, and considering there are no senior starters, the question now for the Bison defense is this: how good can it get? When asked on Monday, head coach Craig Bohl said the potential is there for greatness.

What separates the good defensive teams from the great ones, he said, is the ability to consistently force turnovers.

“It’s a long season, but right now I think we’re pretty doggone solid,” Bohl said. “It will be important to take another step as we go.”

A chance to take another step is next Saturday when the Bison travel to Football Bowl Subdivision participant Colorado State. The Rams opened their season with a 22-17 win over rival and Pac-12 Conference member Colorado.

NDSU, meanwhile, forced two fumbles and picked off a Robert Morris pass in the 52-0 win, the first Bison shutout since 2006. But Bohl also acknowledged RMU had some struggles on the offensive line and was starting a backup quarterback because of a suspension to the starter.

Still, former Bison and NFL standout Phil Hansen said he saw something Saturday that leads him to believe this NDSU defense has a chance to compare itself to the 1986 Bison defense that was part of a national title.

“One of the biggest things is you don’t have a couple of people making all the plays,” Hansen said. “It wasn’t the same name. From an offensive perspective, when you run away from the strengths and run to a weakness – and then that weakness becomes a strength – there are no holes.”

Hansen said the ’86 defense had a swagger about it, a group that surrendered seven points or less in nine of the 13 games, all wins. He said they would get mad if backups came in and gave up some points to ruin a shutout. Former Bison head coach Rocky Hager can get even more specific, referencing the bench players giving up 12 points to Northern Colorado after the starters were taken out.

Hager, now the defensive line coach at FCS Bryant College (R.I.), said great defenses start with a great defensive line.

“We were very good in ’86 and we were very good in ’90,” Hager said.

They were so good that Hager still uses examples from those teams when it comes to defensive linemen running to the ball. Hager still talks about All-American nose guard Paul Nielsen like he played a few years ago.

“This team has the makings of that,” Hansen said of this year’s Bison defense.

In 1999, Hansen was part of a Buffalo Bills defense that was top-ranked in the NFL. The same principle to that team applied to his ’86 Bison defense and perhaps to this group of NDSU defenders: balance.

“You didn’t have to worry about the guy next to you,” Hansen said. “If there is a weak link, you try to do more and then you miss out on something you should be doing. Coaches are famous for saying just do your job, but as players, you know who the weak links are, and you know where they’re going to try and attack.”

Hager calls that “compromising the design” when somebody feels like they have to do the job of two players.

“And that’s when big plays happen,” Hager said. “Our (Bison) players trusted one another.”

Last Saturday, the Bison rotated freely in the secondary and the defensive line, but the starting linebackers remained in the game until the outcome was not in doubt.

Bohl calls the starting linebackers – Grant Olson, Carlton Littlejohn and Travis Beck – “exceptional” and says the backups “are finding their way.”

When it comes to finding a weakness in the Bison defense, saying the backup linebackers are still green would probably be considered nitpicking. But overall, Hansen said injuries could play a factor in determining the fate of the defense.

But the potential of greatness appears to be there.

“Everybody contributes,” Hansen said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia

Kolpack hosts of the WDAY Golf Show Saturdays from 8-9 a.m. on 970-AM.