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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 16 2012

Bison defense has been delivering a weekly stuffing

Fargo - It’s been as dependable as serving a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. This season, the North Dakota State defense has shown up about as often as the sun has come up.

In other words, it has not taken a day off.

And that is why the Bison have already clinched at least a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title and could win it outright today with a win at Illinois State. NDSU is giving up 11 points per game, which would currently ranks as second all-time by a MVFC team.

Western Illinois has the record of 9.4 points set in 1998.

It appears teams have been taking NDSU’s cue that defense wins championships. The Bison also led the league two years ago, but did so by giving up 18.2 points a game. As a whole, the conference has gotten stingier since then.

“I think you have a lot of former defensive coordinators as head coaches,” said Southern Illinois head coach Dale Lennon. “That might be a little bit of a concept. Coaches understand the importance of defense and therefore that is where a priority is put.”

Former defensive coordinators as head coaches are Lennon, NDSU’s Craig Bohl, Illinois State’s Brock Spack and South Dakota State’s John Stiegelmeier. All four rank in the top 30 in FCS in scoring defense with NDSU No. 1, Indiana State No. 2, SDSU No. 9, Illinois State 28th and SIU 30th.

The Bison are in their position mainly because of the system, said defensive coordinator Chris Klieman. NDSU has run some form of the Tampa 2 defense for most of Bohl’s 10 years at the school.

“It lets those players grow up in the system and learn the system,” Klieman said.

Klieman is in his first year as the NDSU defensive coordinator, but you would never know it. He was an assistant last year when Scottie Hazelton called the signals. Hazelton moved on to become the linebackers coach at USC, and Klieman was quickly tabbed by Bohl as his successor.

“Maybe there’s a different voice, now it’s mine, but the same principles are being expressed through Coach Bohl and the defensive staff,” Klieman said.

The one hiccup over the Bohl years was in 2009 when the Bison switched to more of a 3-4 setup under former defensive coordinator Mike Breske, who now has the same position at Washington State.

NDSU also went 3-8 that season, although there was more to the problem than defense.

“We went back to our rules and principles of the Tampa 2, brought back the old Bison defense and people bought into it,” said NDSU senior safety Bobby Ollman. “And we have a coaching staff that knows it very well.”

The Tampa 2 scheme, at its base, consists of four down linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties, with speed a priority in executing its concepts.

“We’ve been tweaking it the last 10 years,” Bohl said.

But it also takes good players to do what NDSU has done this season. Cornerback Marcus Williams is on the “watch list” for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the best defensive player in the FCS.

The linebacker trio of Travis Beck, Grant Olson and Carlton Littlejohn will go down as one of the best in school history. The defensive line has depth, which will be tested today now that starting defensive tackle Leevon Perry is lost for the year with a torn ACL.

The secondary was tested when standout safety Colten Heagle was lost for the year in September with the same injury. Heagle’s replacement, Brian Shepherd, was lost for the year not long after that.

“That’s the hand you’re dealt,” Klieman said. “You have to move the football team forward. I feel sick what happened to Leevon, but other guys have to raise their level of play.”

It’s at a level that is historically good in the Missouri Valley. Take away three interceptions returns for touchdowns and a fumble return for a score and NDSU would be on pace for a league low at 8.2 points per game.

But the players and coaches will tell you that’s football, and that it is a team game.

“So far, the kids have done a great job of never looking forward, they live in the present,” Klieman said. “You’re only as good as your last game, only as good as your last play, and we have another new challenge this week because this is the best offense we’ve played this year.”

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

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia