« So Many Opinions, So Little Time

UND's defense: Where did it go so wrong?

by Mike McFeely

Between 1981 and 1992, North Dakota State's football team never lost to its unquestioned biggest rival, the University of North Dakota. The Bison won 12 straight, often by lopsided margins. NDSU's vaunted veer-option offense -- as executed by the likes of Jeff Bentrim, Chad Stark, Chris Simdorn, Arden Beachy, Tony Satter and a host of large, talented offensive linemen -- dominated the then-Sioux year after year.

“Not only were they your rival, they were the best team in the nation," longtime UND coach Roger Thomas told Prairie Public TV for the docuementary "When They Were Kings." "… It was almost embarrassing at the beginning because we couldn’t compete.”

Former UND coach Roger Thomas emphasized defense. (Photo credit: University of North Dakota.)

So Thomas and his UND staff made a decision. They would use a different defensive scheme to try and catch up with the Bison and the rest of the top-tier North Central Conference teams. The scheme was the 3-4 alignment (three down linemen, four linebackers) and UND's decision was based on two things: recruiting and figuring out a way to stop NDSU's veer at all costs.

"From a personnel standpoint, we figured having a nose guard, two defensive tackles and four linebackers would be easier to recruit because it is much tougher to find those big guys up front than linebackers. There's a glut of linebackers, you can always find some good linebackers," Thomas said this week. "Then, the idea was the 3-4 would give us more flexibility because you can move around linebackers and use them in different ways easier than you can move around linemen. It gave us more options."

It worked. Recruiting big, speedy, hard-hitting defenders -- particularly at linebacker -- like Tim Tibesar, Mark Callhan, Mike Mannasau, Kelly Howe, Eric Schmidt and Digger Anderson, UND not only stopped the veer but just about every other offense it faced. That eventually included the pro-set formation instituted by Bob Babich, who replaced Rocky Hager for the 1997 season.

From 1993 to 2003, UND won 9 of 11 meetings with NDSU. It was the Sioux, not the Bison, who won a Division II national championship in that stretch, winning the title in 2001.

UND had rock-solid offenses in those years, too, and some supremely talented individuals. But UND was about defense -- a hard-nosed, physical defense that would wear out opponents and, if needed, shut down and beat up an opposing superstar.

Take, for example, NDSU's Lamar Gordon. Lamar played for the Bison from 1998-2001 and ended up playing in the NFL for six seasons after that. He left NDSU as the school's all-time leading rusher and held a handful of other single-game and career records. Yet he never exploded on UND as he did so many other NCC schools. After carrying six times for 36 yards in limited usage his freshman season, Lamar's numbers in the prime of his career against UND looked like this:

  • 1999 (sophomore): 31 carries, 92 yards, 0 TDs in 13-10 UND victory in Grand Forks.
  • 2000 (junior): 35 carries, 117 yards, 0 TDs in 16-13 NDSU victory in Fargo.
  • 2001 (senior): 24 carries, 72 yards, 0 TDs in 19-7 UND victory in Grand Forks.

In four games against UND, Gordon carried 96 times for 317 yards and 0 TDs. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry.

In the three games when he was a regular, Gordon carried 90 times for 281 yards and 0 TDs. That's an average of 3.1 yards per carry.

The point: When UND wanted to stop a premier back running behind a good offensive line, it could do it. It had the scheme and it had the personnel.

Zach Zenner ran for 295 yards against UND on Saturday. (Photo credit: Sioux Falls Argus Leader.)

Fast-forward to Saturday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Despite a spirited second-half comeback, UND lost 35-28 to South Dakota State, the sixth-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision. 

There are two ways to look at this loss. The apologist way would be that UND never quit and used its impressive trio of receivers (Greg Hardin, Jameer Jackson and Kenny Golladay) to nearly tie the game late against the Jackrabbits. The realist way would be that UND got run over by SDSU's offense and star running back Zach Zenner, continuing to show that UND's defensive deficiencies will make it a middle-of-the-pack Big Sky Conference team again this season.

I choose the latter. Watching the game on TV, the first UND game I've sat and watched in years, it was easy to see UND's defensive line get manhandled by SDSU.

Yes, UND's offense was impressive in racking up 458 yards. But UND's defense allowed 455 yards to SDSU, including 295 rushing to Zenner. This continues a disturbing pattern for UND, going back the last couple of years.

Last season, UND allowed an average of 480 yards per game in total offense -- 245 passing and 235 rushing. The season yardage totals allowed by UND were staggering: It gave up 2,588 rushing yards and 2,692 passing yards.

Showing the lack of emphasis on defense in the Big Sky, UND still won three conference games and had a better record than three teams in the league.

How does a once-proud defensive program fall so far? 

Theories abound, though the solid truth is probably a mixture of a several of things.

The top theory making its way among media and fans is that UND changed its program philosophy after gaining entrance into the run-and-gun Big Sky. Head coach Chris Mussman, it is said, figured he needed to spread things offensively and emphasize highly skilled receivers and backs. And no doubt, the receiving team of Hardin, Golloday and Jackson is tremendous.

Another theory is much simpler: UND just hasn't caught up to the talent level needed in Division I football, having gotten a late start in the process compared to SDSU and two-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

"They are years behind in the transition. I think that plays a part," Thomas said. "SDSU and NDSU got a head-start on this thing and they are both really strong progams. UND is trying to catch up. We went through the same thing in our early years at UND. We would go into high schools and kids would just about laugh at us because we weren't any good. 'SU was so far ahead of us that it was almost embarrassing. It took us awhile to make headway against that, but we stuck to our plan and emphasized finding those good defensive players and spending our money there. We caught up eventually."

Perhaps the UND staff could look south to see a blueprint. The Bison's most notable athletes are not receivers or running backs or even the much-publicized quarterback. The most notable athletes are a cornerback and a linebacker and a defense that neutralized Zenner and SDSU's offensive line twice last season en route to another national title.

It worked once in the history of UND. Mussman and Co. would be wise to try it again. 

(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.)