Colgate had every reason to be confident coming in to Fargo this past Saturday. The Raiders had just knocked off perennial FCS behemoths James Madison at home. Additionally, Colgate boasted what statistically profiled as the top defense in the nation. Coming into the game, they ranked first in scoring defense, total defense and pass efficiency defense. Still, there was an obvious crack in Colgate’s game, one that spelled doom against the No. 1 North Dakota State Bison.
That was their third-down offense: suspect at best, abysmal at worst and nonexistent against the Bison. Colgate moved the chains on third down at a 38 percent clip on the season. That mark ticked upward against James Madison, when the Raiders converted 8 of 18 third-down attempts. Still, the Raiders went three-and-out four times in that game.
Against NDSU, similar numbers weren’t going to cut it, nor would only one conversion on 12 attempts, the sub-10 percent success rate Colgate managed to muster Saturday. The Raiders went three-and-out five times, spelling doom against the Bison’s swarming defensive front.
The key for the Bison was to derail the Colgate offense by getting them off schedule. The 12th man in the Fargodome took care of that on Colgate’s first possession. A noise-induced false start put the Raiders behind the chains. As did a 9-yard loss on a sack from Caleb Butler, which led to a manageable — for the Bison — third-and-21 attempt.
Colgate managed to flip the field on the ensuing punt, but it didn’t matter as NDSU drove 96 yards in four plays for a touchdown. No one knew it at the time, but thanks to the Bison’s Code Green defense, it was the winning score.
The Raiders proceeded to go three-and-out on their following two drives. On the latter, Colgate failed to gain any yards as a result of a 5-yard tackle for loss from Cole Karcz. In a whirlwind of a first quarter, Colgate punted three times and gained a meager 47 yards to NDSU’s 124.
Even when starting in plus territory, the Raiders were feckless. Colgate got the ball on the NDSU side of the field to start a second quarter drive, but the Bison defense dug deep. On fourth down, Levi Jordheim rushed quarterback Grant Breneman into a pass low and behind Nick Diaco, giving NDSU possession on a turnover on downs.
As the clocked rolled and the Bison offense pulled away, Colgate was left behind in a cloud of dust. With the Bison only up by a pair of touchdowns, the Raiders were in the two-minute drill with a shot to pick up a momentum-swinging score. As was the case all afternoon, the Bison answered the bell.
An incomplete pass and a 3-yard carry had Colgate in an obvious passing situation on third down. Obvious passing situations are where Code Green have made a living this year, and Saturday was no different. Derrek Tuszka flew off the edge and wrestled down Breneman for a 10-yard loss. Tuszka led the defensive effort with 2.5 sacks.
“They did a really good job keeping us off schedule. They had the (defensive ends) going all day,” Breneman lamented afterward. “We didn’t do enough executing on first and second down.”
Colgate converted their only third down of the game on a third-and-16, which exemplifies the degree to which Bison defenders made a home in the backfield. On average, the Raiders needed to go 9.1 yards to move the chains on their 12 third downs in the game. That figure had a lot to do with the fact that they gained roughly four yards on first downs, while the Bison gained an average of over seven in such situations.
“It was just a different animal,” Colgate head coach Dan Hunt remarked. “They were different than what we played all year, and it showed.”
Undoubtedly, the Bison were far different than any of Colgate’s Patriot League foes. What was evident on Saturday was that the top defense in the country was different than what statistics had indicated as well.