Feature photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
NDSU legends have been born in Frisco, Texas. Whether it was on special teams with Matt Voigtlander taking a fake punt 27 yards to set up DJ McNorton’s touchdown in the 2012 game or offensively when Carson Wentz led a final-minute comeback against Illinois State in the 2015 game. But this season, in the Bison’s 17-13 win against James Madison, it was the defense that saved its best performance for last and carried the team to a win.
The Bison allowed just 93 yards on 30 rushes and held the JMU passing attack in check despite facing short fields. With the offense going scoreless in the second half, it was on the defense to win the game. They did just that in the fourth quarter, overcoming a fake punt and keeping the Dukes out of the end zone when they had the ball on the 20-yard line in the final minutes.
Like it’s done all throughout the run of sixth national titles in seven seasons, “Code Green Defense” was dominant. Defensive coordinator Matt Entz has been the head of the unit since 2014. And this championship was truly a special one.
“Now that it’s been my fourth year here, it makes it a little different because of my connection I have with the majority of the kids on defense,” Entz said. “I’ve been here since when a lot of these seniors were redshirt freshmen. That probably changes what it means a little bit because of my relationships and being more invested in the program. The longer I’m here, the more I enjoy it.”
Entz was certainly burning the midnight oil in the three weeks of preparation. Starting cornerbacks Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush were doubtful to play against a JMU offense rolling with senior quarterback Bryan Schor and emerging 6-foot-5 receiver Riley Stapleton. Yet Schor went 14-32 passing and threw two interceptions with true freshman Josh Hayes and converted wide receiver Marquise Bridges at corner.
“You saw two corners out there that were unbelievably confident.” – Matt Entz
“A lot of it goes back to how we go about our business and practice,” Entz said. “We do things in fall camp and spring ball that enables not only our 1s and 2s but our third and fourth team guys to get a ton of reps and experience. That is vital for their development. You start seeing guys like Josh and Marquise, because of those extra reps, those guys get a ton of experience just in practice. Then you become more confident. And you saw two corners out there that were unbelievably confident.”
Injuries were nothing new for the defense. All-American defensive end Greg Menard went down with an ACL tear in fall camp. Linebackers with starting experience like Nick DeLuca, Matt Plank, Levi Jordheim, Chris Board and Dan Marlette all missed small or big chunks of the season. Despite all this, the defense was No. 3 in the FCS in third-down conversion percentage (.255), No. 6 in rushing defense (89.5 YPG), No. 3 in passing yards allowed (147.9 YPG), No. 2 in scoring defense (11.6 PPG) and No. 1 in total defense (237.4 YPG).
It all came down to the “next man up” mentality that has turned into a football cliché, but it is something NDSU truly epitomizes.
“(Board) is one of the guys that was banged up in the middle of the year and when he got hurt, all of a sudden here comes Jabril Cox,” Entz said. “And now we had to find a way for both of those guys to get on the field. Then Levi Jordheim was having a great year and got banged up. Chris had to learn a whole new position so we had the best linebacker crew on the field.”
Bison Illustrated: You’ve battled injuries all season. As a coach, was this a more challenging season to maintain a high level of play?
Matt Entz: “I don’t know if one year is more challenging than the others. 2016, we had our own sets of adversity. It makes you sick when you have guys who put in all that time and all of a sudden it gets taken away with an injury. I don’t know if one year is easier than the other. But I do like the fact that our young kids or our backups early in the year took the opportunities that were out there and ran with them. We didn’t have a fall off.”
BI: What was it like talking and working with Nick DeLuca and Nate Tanguay leading up to this game after they missed last year’s game against JMU? Were they pretty amped up?
ME: “Yeah, I think they were. As coaches, we didn’t really try to hype up the rematch part of it. Watching film of last year’s game, our kids could see it on film the issues that were there and then maybe how we didn’t play our best football game on that day. I think both of them were really excited knowing they could be a big part of the game. How competitive both of them are going into their final game as members of “Code Green” and the Bison, I didn’t have any concerns about their effort, their focus or their energy level going into the game.”
BI: Chris Board – did he save his best for last?
ME: “I know he did. I talked to him (January 11) when he stopped by the office. I told him, ‘You played your very best football game in the very biggest stage you can find in your last opportunity.’ I think Chris appreciates it, and it’s something he’ll have the rest of his life. He played an outstanding game. I tell you what, on the flare screen late in the fourth quarter where we had to rope-a-dope a block and get that back down in the open field, that was as big a play in that game. Because if he doesn’t get him down, that kid may get it down to the 5-yard line or so. But the rest is history. He played a huge role in our success.”