To say that Pat Kehoe’s afternoon got off to a horrific start would be an understatement and a massive one at that. Already down a touchdown, Delaware’s lefty quarterback dropped back to pass on the Blue Hens’ first offensive play. Gazing left, Kehoe targeted Joe Walker.
Kehoe failed to account for North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox, and the linebacker took advantage.
Cox jumped in front of Walker and saw nothing but open turf ahead of him. In a flash, the game had been turned on its head as a seven-point deficit doubled.
The play was nearly a carbon copy of Cox’s pick-six from a week before. Like his interception against North Alabama, repetitions against the scout team made the difference. “Again, it’s the prep work with the scout team. That’s one (play) that I’ve seen all week,” Cox explained. “All I had to do was get under it. All that credit is to the scout team.”
The sophomore became the first NDSU player since Del Gehrett in 1967 to record a pick-six in consecutive contests. Cox also added five tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
The electrifying feats that have become a staple of Cox’s play are practically becoming part of the Bison game plan. “We’re going to start expecting one every game now,” NDSU quarterback Easton Stick joked.
Since bursting on to the scene against Youngstown State a season ago, Cox has always demonstrated quick-twitch abilities. Beyond preternatural athleticism, the young star has benefitted from an entire season studying football.
“He’s learning how to play the game with instincts now and seeing things pre-snap,” Bison head coach Chris Klieman remarked. “He’s such a playmaker. He’s 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, and he can run as fast as anyone on the team.”
Cox’s exploits were only the beginning for the Herd. On the following drive — and only Kehoe’s fourth throw of the day — Robbie Grimsley reeled in NDSU’s second interception of the day. Nine plays later, the game was effectively over.
“This is pretty much the result when you play a bad game against a really good team,” Delaware head coach Danny Rocco said. “They all but knocked us out there in the first quarter.”
Both Kehoe and Rocco’s nightmares didn’t end in the first quarter though. On the Blue Hens’ first drive of the second quarter, another Bison took a stab at an interception. This time it was Jaylaan Wimbush who jumped the route across the middle of the field for his first career pick. Like both before, this interception led to the Bison reaching the end zone.
The turnover bug struck one last time at the end of the third quarter for the Blue Hens. On an impossibly long fourth down, defensive end Caleb Butler drilled Kehoe and forced a fumble. His bookend Derrek Tuszka scooped up the loose ball.
Forcing turnovers has been a critical focal point of the Bison’s defense in 2018. NDSU has forced seven turnovers in three games, which have resulted in a back-breaking 35 points.
Beyond the turnovers, NDSU’s “Code Green” defense has been lights out this season. A first quarter field goal from Cal Poly is the only blemish on NDSU’s nearly perfect first-team defense. Even in fourth quarter garbage time, the opposition have only managed 17 points against the Bison’s backups, and that includes a scoop-six from the Blue Hens’ defense on Saturday.
Still, players and coaches alike will concede that it is still a work in progress for the Bison defense. Klieman listed tackling as an area for improvement, while Cox said he believes that communication as a unit can also use work. Regardless, the Bison once again possess one of the FCS’s top defenses, one which may not have even reached the height of its powers.
NDSU will face its first defensive test next Saturday against Taryn Christion and Co. in the annual Dakota Marker game. South Dakota State will come to Fargo with what is inarguably the subdivision’s best offense. The Jackrabbits are coming off a 90-point dredging of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and rank No. 1 and No. 10 in passing and rushing, respectively.
Cox doesn’t even need to switch to the other side of the ball to score, but he is still dreaming of playing offense. “I’m trying to prove a point, but I guess it’s not hitting home,” he quipped after the game.
With the Dakota Marker on the line, it’s in everyone’s best interest that Cox stays put and the rest of NDSU’s defense continues its dominance.