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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 10 2012

Kolpack: Defense remains name of the game for Bison, Missouri Valley

Fargo - One of these years, the governors of North Dakota and South Dakota are going to put some teeth into their wager on the inter-state football game between the two state universities. Dinners are routine and boring. Think of something better.

How about this: If North Dakota State wins, Craig Bohl becomes the fifth face on Rushmore. Or if South Dakota State wins, tourists will be flocking to Medora located in John Stiegelmeier National Park. Realistically, something should be named in honor of this Bison defense.

How about a street, where the speed limit is 2 miles per hour. That’s about as fast as the Jackrabbits got going in Saturday’s 20-17 Bison win that clinched a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“They keep on answering the bell,” Bohl said. “I can’t say enough about them, but it’s a team sport. Offense, defense and special teams pulled together.”

They pulled together to improve to 9-1 overall, which solidified a Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot. Now it’s a matter of seedings, who else will get in and who will get home-field advantage.

If SDSU beats South Dakota next week, the Jackrabbits are in. Illinois State, which hosts NDSU next week, is also probably in with eight victories.

Those three teams, and maybe either Indiana State or Youngstown, which still has an outside chance, will carry the Missouri Valley banner into the playoffs, and the banner should just read one word: defense.

It’s the only league that consistently plays it well.

“We don’t pay much attention to other teams, but we’re built on playing good defense and running the football,” said Bison linebacker Grant Olson. “We hang our hat on that.”

The Jacks came in with FCS’s leading rusher in Zach Zenner, who averaged 166 yards with eight runs of 40-or-more yards. He barely got to 40 in 13 carries, finishing with 43. Last week, Southern Illinois held him in check with 47 yards.

That doesn’t happen in the Colonial Athletic Association, Big Sky Conference or Southern Conference. This is the fifth year in the Valley for both NDSU and SDSU, and the league has never played defense like this.

“I think a premium is put on that in the Missouri Valley,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’re in an area where it’s not wide-open, fastbreak football like a lot of leagues are.”

The winning team in the CAA averaged 38.2 points Saturday. The average in the Big Sky was 43.3 points, with a late game not accounted. The Bison offense probably wouldn’t mind a Big Sky league invitation for the last game of the season.

The Southern, which is easily No. 2 in league defense behind the Valley, had a better defensive day, with the winning team averaging 25.5 points.

The point in all this: Defense wins championships.

NDSU proved it last year. The Bison are at least at the table this year with nine wins. They held SDSU to 130 total yards until the last drive when the Bison were in prevent defense mode.

“Obviously, they’re No. 1 in the nation,” SDSU linebacker Ross Shafrath said of the Bison defense. “They’re very physical.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia