Saturday afternoon did not get off on the right foot for North Dakota State’s vaunted front seven. Roughly 45 minutes before kickoff, it was discovered that starting defensive end Caleb Butler would be out with a quadriceps injury. Butler had come up with a sack and tackle for loss in the previous weekend’s win over Cal Poly, leaving Stanley Jones to start in his place.
Butler’s absence proved to be inconsequential. Even without the Coon Rapids, Minnesota product in the rotation, the Bison pass rush was still its dominant self.
After the Herd elected to defer on the coin toss, visiting North Alabama received a warm welcome to the Fargodome. In front of a crowd of 18,557 screaming fans, defensive tackle Cole Karcz sacked mobile quarterback Christian Lopez on the Lions’ second play of the game. The sack put UNA in a third-and-19 situation, which save for a personal foul called against the Bison, would likely have led to a three-and-out.
It was Karcz who once again got home to Lopez later in the first quarter on third down for a loss of six, forcing a UNA punt. Aaron Steidl and Dan Marlette both added third-down sacks in the second quarter as well.
Karcz, a player who Bison head coach Chris Klieman said “keeps getting better,” contributed yet another standout performance. In addition to his two sacks, the junior tacked on three solo tackles. While he may be behind Steidl and Blake Williams, Karcz is a player whose workload Klieman would like to see increase.
Beyond the sacks, pressure was a common theme for defensive coordinator Matt Entz’s front seven. The Bison picked up five tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. More importantly, a stout performance in the trenches kept NDSU in the game while their offense sputtered.
“I was pleased with the first half defensively. We were able to control the line of scrimmage, get a number of sacks and get them off schedule,” Klieman remarked.
Thanks to both a stingy defense and costly penalties, NDSU consistently had the Lions’ offense on the ropes or playing from behind the chains. Of UNA’s 14 third downs, 10 were at a distance of five yards or greater. The Lions only managed to convert on four third downs, one of which came on Greg Menard’s aforementioned penalty.
“If we can get people in third-and-long and let our defensive line lay their ears back, we’re pretty good,” Klieman added.
In total, Lopez only managed to complete 7 of 18 passes for a scant 53 yards. He was substituted out in the second half in favor of Chris Weaver, who managed to connect on 5 of 7 passes, primarily against NDSU’s backups.
A barrage of pressure met Lopez on seemingly every throw. While the Lions possess solid size along the trenches, their offensive line had their hands full with NDSU’s unceasing pass rush. “It’s just a combination of the pressure along with their front. When your defensive line plays like that, you’ll win a lot of ball games,” UNA head coach Chris Willis noted afterward.
The marquee play for NDSU’s front seven came with Jabril Cox early in the fourth quarter. With the Bison on top 24-0, Cox jumped the route and picked off Weaver. Cox bolted down the sideline for a 43-yard pick six, all but putting to bed any hope for the Lions.
“That was a play we’d seen a lot this week with the scout team,” Cox said. “I knew that once he did a little whip route, he was going to go outside, so I just wanted to react and find the ball.”
The sophomore from Kansas City poured in yet another high-quality performance. With five solo tackles and two hurries, it shaped up as the kind of stat-line Bison fans are accustomed to seeing from Cox. He made his presence felt on special teams as well, walloping Dwain Smith on punt coverage in the third quarter.
“It’s a big difference when we can have him on the field, especially to the field like we do so often,” Klieman commented. “He’s a big, rangy guy who can really run and creates a lot of problems for an offense.”
The endless pressure had a ripple effect across the defense. “It helps us play tighter coverage because they don’t have time to sit back there and throw the deep ball,” safety Robbie Grimsley, the game’s leading tackler, explained. “You can’t give enough credit to how they played.”
In total, it was yet another dominant showing in a long line of dominant showings from the defensive line.
“Our player of the game, so to speak, we gave to our defensive line. We rolled seven or eight guys in there, and you don’t drop off at all. For us to be successful, that defensive line has to continue to dominate the line of scrimmage,” Klieman said afterward.
If the Bison’s deep defense line continues to develop and play the way it did against North Alabama, more success is on the horizon.