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Bison defense shrugs off doomsday predictions

by Mike McFeely

Youngstown, Ohio

North Dakota State cornerback Marcus Williams was spotted with a group of teammates in the Steak 'n Shake near the Bison's hotel in Boardman, Ohio, on Friday evening. There was a noticeable hitch in Marcus' giddyup because of an injured right knee, which appeared to be supported by a good-sized brace.

One could have concluded the All-America defensive back was not going to play Saturday against Youngstown state in a game that might decide the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Word behind the scenes was exactly that -- a strained ligament in his right knee was going to keep Williams from playing.

 Jordan Champion (photo courtesy NDSU)

Williams' unavailability was confirmed Saturday when he was not on the field on NDSU's first defensive series against Youngstown State.

So this was disaster, right? This was just what the Bison didn't need, right? Combined with the season-ending knee injury to linebacker Grant Olson one week earlier, this was too much for NDSU to overcome, right?

Not exactly.

Even without two top-flight starters, and with a couple of other regulars slowed by injury, the No. 1-ranked Bison rolled past the Penguins 35-17 to clinch their third straight conference title and all but assure themselves home-field advantage throughout the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Remember the doomsday predictions last week when Olson and Williams were injured? Not so much.

The machine rolls on.

Youngstown State came into the game as the top offensive team in the league, averaging 37.5 points and 429 yards. The Penguins left Stambaugh Stadium tying their lowest points output of the season. 

"It says a lot (about the Bison defense)," Bison coach Craig Bohl said. "They have great belief in one another. They work really hard during fall camp. We do extra work. We call it double-repping and a lot of what you we do, sometimes you think it is all for naught. But what it does is prepare some of these younger guys for a situation like this. We've got a lot of depth."

With Olson gone for the season and his career, the Bison moved strong-side linebacker Carlton Littlejohn to the middle and slid junior Esley Thornton into Littlejohn's spot.

Littlejohn responded with seven tackles and forced a fumble when he stripped Youngstown backup quarterback Dante Nania early in the second half. That led to a Bison touchdown and a 21-10 lead.

Sophomore Jordan Champion replaced Williams at cornerback and led the Bison with eight tackles.

"We don't worry about who is playing, we just worry about getting it done," NDSU defensive end Cole Jirik said.

It wasn't all smooth. The Bison allowed 302 yards, only the fourth time in 10 games they've given up 300-plus yards. And Youngstown did put together a couple of long, time-consuming drives. But overall, considering the Bison were missing their leading tackler (Olson) and a player likely destined for the NFL (Williams), it was pretty good.

 Carlton Littlejohn

"When someone goes down, it's adversity and it's up to somebody else to step up," NDSU defensive end Kyle Emanuel said. "That's what we do. When one guy goes down, another steps up and we go forward."

Youngstown had its own issues. Starting quarterback Kurt Hess, in the midst of an efficient senior season, was questionable before the game with a high ankle sprain. He lasted two series before giving way to Dante Nania. The second-stringer was knocked out in the third quarter after suffering a shoulder injury. Hess tried to return, but lasted just one more series. The Penguins went with redshirt freshman third-stringer Tanner Garry the rest of the way.

Remember last week, when some Fargo media and fans seemed ready to jump head-first off the top of the Fargodome because Olson blew out his knee and Williams was on crutches? That doom-gloom scenario didn't quite come true.

Instead, the Bison won a third straight conference title in the roughest, toughest FCS league in the land.

"It's really hard to do. This league is a tough league. We found that out when we first got into. We kind of got taken to the woodshed and had to learn how to adjust the conference," Bohl said. 

It's all about defense and depth, two things on which this Bison club thrives.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)