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Big Deal Or Not A Big Deal?

by Dan Gunderson

The title of this article has to deal with the loss of Zack Johnson on the offensive line for the North Dakota State University football team. How much of effect will it have on NDSU's offense, an offense that wants to run the ball 60 to 65 percent of the time on offense.

I didn't get a chance to really delve into this on my new radio show, (Shameless Plug Alert!) Fan Sports Saturday on 740 The Fan from 8-10 a.m. Saturday mornings, but that is why blogs are so awesome.

I want to start out by saying this about the NDSU rushing attack. The Bison have had at least one running back run for over a 1,000 yards every year since 2003. Prior to that, the Bison had back-to-back sub 1,000 yard seasons from running backs Rod Malone and Lamar Gordon.

If we were to give out reasons as to why the running game has been so successful, there are a few. One, the defense has been solid in those 11 years. In 2002, the defense gave up 28.7 ppg. The next season, the defense gave up 15.3 ppg. The 28.7 number has yet to be surpassed in the last 11 years.

Better defense means more chances on offense. It also means you are playing more often than not with a lead late in games. That also means you are running the ball more.

I have to mention, however, that ppg is somewhat of a weak example. If you think back to 2009, the year the Bison ended up going 3-8 and had D.J. McNorton playing linebacker, the Bison gave up 28.6 points per game. They still had a 1,000 yard rusher that season, Pat Paschall ran for 1,397 yards.

That brings me to the another reason why NDSU has been able to sustain such a solid running game. The talent in the back field. Here are the list of NDSUs leading rushers at running backs since 2003.

2003/Rod Malone - 1,251

2004/Kyle Steffes - 1,055

2005/Kyle Steffes - 1,071

2006/Kyle Steffes - 1,250

2007/Tyler Roehl - 1,431

2008/Tyler Roehl - 1,053

2009/Pat Paschall - 1,397

2010/D.J. McNorton - 1,559

2011/Sam Ojuri - 1,105

2012/Sam Ojuri - 1,047

2013/Sam Ojuri - 1,398

That doesnt even include John Crockett in 2012 and 2013 or McNorton in 2011. Both ran for over 1,00 yards in those seasons. Just take a moment and let that list sink in. Roehl, Steffes and the list goes on. That is a really impressive list and a consistent one at that. Ojuri and Steffes led the team in rushing three straight seasons.

Roehl did it with a bum ankle in '08. McNorton was a dual threat type of running back in '10, having the second most receiving yards on the team that season. Pat Paschall was the FCS leading rusher in '09. That type of sustainability is unprecedented, no matter what level of college ball you look at.

Of course, a running back is only good as his offensive line. If your line is doing a better job of missing blocks than actually blocking, you are going to have a tough time gaining yards. One of the best ways to ensure solid offensive line play is making sure the amount of players you have to replace on the offensive line is minimal.

Going back to 2002, the last year NDSU didnt have a 1,000 yard rusher, there was stability on the O-line with four players starting all 10 games. Three of those four starters, Rob Hunt, Mark Sanders and Nick Zilka, returned in 2003.

Since then, the Bison have never had to replace four starters on the offensive line. It has been especially stable the last three years, with the Bison only have to replace one starter in both 2011 and '13 and two starters in 2012.

Now, with the graduation of Tyler Gimmestad and Billy Turner, along with the decision to stop playing football by Josh Colville, the Bison are left with one returning starter on the line in Joe Haeg.

This is where we start to get into the debate whether or not losing Johnson is a big deal. Let us start with why it isnt. NDSU returns a solid group on defense, with players like Carlton Littlejohn, Travis Beck, Colten Heagle, Christian Dudzik and Kyle Emanuel all coming back. Ive already explained why a good defense can equal a good running game so we wont double back.

You also have two-time 1,000 yard rusher, John Crockett, coming back for his senior year. Crockett may have never led the team in rushing the past two years but he definitely showed flashes as to why some considered him the more explosive running back over Ojuri.

If anybody could handle a depletion at the line, causing for more creativity from the running back, it would be Crockett.

Why it is a big deal is because, as we have mentioned, NDSU hasnt had to replace this many starters in over a decade. That leaves it wide open for even true freshman to start August 30 down in Ames, Iowa. Young players can look as good as Billy Turner in practice, but how are they going to hold up against Big 12 pass rushers.

The other reason why this hurts is because Brock Jensen is not under center anymore. Having a signal caller as a leader on the field who knew how the offense was suppose to be run and what every player should be doing during a play helps. It gives the team confidence.

During the final drive against Kansas State, you have to believe that having Jensen in the huddle helped everybody else relax and do their job. This year, it is an inexpierenced quarterback in Carson Wentz. Athleticism is great and all but we have no idea how this guy is going to react under pressure.

When your leader is out on the field wetting the bed, so to speak, it doesnt necessarily make you feel all that confident. There is a saying out there that isn't exactly safe for work, but it essentially means when the guy at the top is having problems, everybody has to deal with it.

You had hoped that maybe players like Zack Johnson and Joe Haeg could have helped bring the younger guys around them along. Now, it is up to one player, Haeg, and an untested QB to make this thing happen.

I truly believe this is a big deal for NDSU to lose Johnson. Especially when your first four games include two road games, one against a Big 12 opponent and a home game against Montana. The biggest question marks headed into the 2014 season was depth at D-line and QB. Now, throwing in offensive line is even more scary than both of those two.

NDSU has been through D-line depth issues and quarterback changes before. It has been a long time since they have had to deal with so much change in the trenches.

You can follow Daniel "Pinto" Gunderson on Twitter at @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook. You can hear him on his weekly podcast show on kfgo.com, 740thefan.com or on iTunes called The Pinto and White Shadow Show. Pinto is a radio producer within the Midwest Communications-Fargo company.