Matt Entz had to overcome another handful of losses on defense before entering the 2015 season. It was no bed of roses for this year’s version of the Bison defense, but as the season went along, they campaigned to be one of the most unforgettable groups in Bison history.
When Bison Nation dreamed about the opening game of the season, not even the most pessimistic fan could dream of the NDSU defense allowing Montana to run 92 plays for a total of 544 yards, 27 first downs, and five touchdowns.
It was “The Nightmare in Missoula” and it left Bison Nation questioning the validity of the young Bison defense. Defensive coordinator Matt Entz also knew, even though they were without senior cornerback C.J. Smith, the product they put on the field against Montana was unacceptable for the rest of the season.
The Bison rolled six new starters out on defense against Montana, and by the second game of the season against Weber State, the 2015 version of “Code Green” started taking shape. Their official coming out party was in the conference opener against South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D. The defense allowed seven points, registered three sacks and hit the Jackrabbits quarterbacks seven times.
The following week against Northern Iowa, the defense would face its toughest challenge of the season: dual-threat quarterbacks. The Bison had avoided seeing the type of athlete like Northern Iowa’s Aaron Bailey and the inexperience showed. The defense allowed a season-high 277 yards on the ground, 173 more yards than the average rushing yards they allowed per game.
The week after a nail-biting victory against UNI, the University of South Dakota deployed a similar offensive strategy. The read-option like offense worked, as the Bison were on the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets in the FCS all season.
Matt Entz: I think after the USD loss, there were some guys that got coached hard the next week. I’m not saying we slipped at all, I just think we thought we were better than we were as a group at that time. I think when the Carson (Wentz) injury happened, the defensive guys said we need to help. We can provide the offense a little bit of time to go through some growing pains maybe with Easton (Stick). We can give him the ball back a few extra times during the course of the game, but we have to start playing a little bit better so we can enable that to happen. That’s probably when we started to see it.
You start talking about the second half of the Youngstown game is probably when this group figured it out and said, we’re a pretty good group, we can play with anybody in the country. Those three three-and-outs we had in the fourth quarter of that game just propelled us and pushed us right into the playoff season. I think those two kinds of key moments of the season where maybe we had an epiphany and that’s when we started to believe we were pretty good.
Bison Illustrated: What went into the progression of success against dual-threat quarterbacks? Was it a schematic change or just the experience gained throughout the season?
ME: I think seeing it more. We changed a few things schematically to enable our kids to be in better positions to keep the ball in the core – if you will – more. Not trying to always make perimeter tackles. Let’s have our d-ends and backers be involved in the run game other than always putting it on a freshman safety or a sophomore safety. Because then all of a sudden, you miss in space, it’s going to be a big play.
About midseason, we started to make some changes schematically so we could be a better tackling team, a better pursuit team. I think that paid off big time. The plan did not change a whole lot as we went through the season. We were defending the same type of quarterbacks and we did it with a fairly similar game plan – slightly tweaked here and there – and based on formation and personnel. But that was part of it too. As a staff, we said, “Hey, we can’t have too much in with these guys. We want them to play fast, let’s make sure they really know what they’re doing.” On the sidelines, we’ll know the adjustments, we’ll know the issues so that way, if we have to adjust, we can make it and they’re comfortable with it. We didn’t want to outcoach ourselves, let these guys keep getting better.
The Bison defense turned it up a notch after the Youngstown State game. They shut out Missouri State in the regular season finale at the Fargodome the following week and forced three turnovers in the first quarter. The first coming by way of a fumble when defensive end Greg Menard strip-sacked the Bears’ quarterback and Caleb Butler fell on it, in the end zone. Their first shutout of the season was imminent.
The 55-0 win was a precursor to what was about to take place in the next four playoff games. The county took notice of the defense when they got one more shot at Montana in the second round, but this time, it would be different, playing in their house, the noisy Fargodome. The second matchup against Montana was going to be a true measuring stick to show just how far they have come since the season-opening debacle.
ME: We knew we were young and we knew we needed more practice time. There were a lot of things we took away from it (the first game against Montana). We were frustrated that Smith wasn’t playing that game. Hindsight’s always 20- 20. One guy might’ve made a big difference for us, but it is what it is.
I think we told people last summer, this time last year, that this was going to be a process. We were definitely going to be better by the end of the year than we were in the beginning in August, and I think we proved that to be correct. We probably improved by more than what I had envisioned, this is an unbelievable group of kids that usually you kind of plateau somewhere along the season, but this group didn’t. Their best football was the last four weeks of the season.
BI: What allowed for the improvement, specifically, against Montana because we can just look at the dramatic difference in points allowed?
ME: Two-fold. We actually knew what they were going to do. The first time, it was a new staff, new situation. We were trying to speculate how they would attack us. You actually had some real live, NDSU versus Montana clips that you could see how they took advantage of us, what did they do here. It was easier to convey that to our team the second time around.
I think our second time around our kids played with a huge chip on our shoulder, especially defensively. Our offense scored 35 points and that should be enough for us to win here at NDSU. I think they wanted to go out and prove the world wrong, and say, “Hey, we are different. We’re a much-improved team than you saw in August.” They played as well as they could’ve all year. It was an exciting game and great game with two pick sixes. They did an unbelievable job of disguising coverages. Playing from within the scheme, they understood it as well as we’ve seen. We were really excited after that game about where we were at and where we were going.
BI: Why did the secondary have a better day the second time around against Montana?
ME: I think we did a great job, and Coach Klanderman in the secondary did a great job disguising coverages, doing a much better job. And some of the comfort level that comes with disguising coverages is just your guys like Robbie Grimsley guys like Tre Dempsey had a full year of snaps under their belt. You play in game one and they were probably a little bit uncomfortable with just not being 100 percent sure of what they were doing within the defense, and now they had a year of snaps, a year of close games, and a lot of continuous development and they were able to play a lot faster, but I think that was ultimately our ability to disguise coverages. We still got great pressure on the quarterback with our guys up front. We thought we could take advantage of that matchup on that particular day and our guys up front continued to get better.
Of the four teams NDSU played in the playoffs, the Bison defense held its opponents to season-lows in total yards. The 36 total points allowed in the playoffs was the lowest total given up by a Bison defense in the playoffs since their first championship run in 2011. The one catch with the 2015 version of the Bison defense is, seven of its starters are returning and four will be seniors.
The 2015 season was a year of growth for defensive coordinator Entz, not only for his side of the ball but also for himself as a coach and what he could take away from a season filled with overcoming adversity.
ME: Just staying the course, and keep doing what you’re doing. There’s a reason why you’re all here, don’t try to be anybody else. I try to do a great job of understanding my deficiencies and leaning on people around me, who can make-up for those. I’m probably a front-seven guy, so that’s where guys like Coach Klieman and Coach Klanderman are critical for me, because I haven’t coached in the back end and have a decent knowledge, but I’ve never been there.
It’s great to be at a place where you’re afforded the opportunity to just be a football coach. You get to coach, your get to recruit, you get to impact players’ lives, you don’t have to worry about all these other little things that at other places, the fundraising, that’s not part of what we do. It’s great where I can be just invested in the Xs and Os and the player development that goes on daily here and that’s what makes it such a special place.