McFeely: Bison defense a nightmare for Northern Iowa

FARGO — If somebody in Cedar Falls, Iowa, wants to scare the stuffing out Eli Dunne on Halloween, they’ll dress in a green and yellow football jersey with the No. 49 on it. The Northern Iowa quarterback will be seeing it in his nightmares for awhile anyway.
Nick DeLuca, the North Dakota State senior linebacker who wears that jersey, made Dunne’s life a horror show Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Fargodome. Blitzing time after time, DeLuca pressured Dunne and smacked him enough times that the quarterback was looking skittish — if not downright terrified — for much of the Bison’s 30-14 victory.
And it wasn’t just DeLuca, who’ll get his shot to play in the National Football League when his NDSU career is finished. The Bison defense, deep and talented, showed that no matter how much their teammates on offense struggle, NDSU will never be out of a game.
Football is a game in which the team with the most points wins — and it is incredibly difficult to score on this defense.
“We’re playing at a really high level on defense,” Bison coach Chris Klieman said. “In this league, the one thing that should never get stale or never get behind is the defense. You have to play good defense to win in this league and I think we have a really good defense.”
In other breaking news, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
It was expected the Bison defense was going to be outstanding this year with DeLuca coming back for one more year after getting a medical hardship last season and players like Tre Dempsey, Robbie Grimsley, Nate Tanguay and a bunch of others buzzing around the field like overgrown green hornets. But this good? It might be time to compare it to the 2013 NDSU defense. Or maybe the version that carried the Bison to the 2015 national title.
“The sky’s the limit with this defense,” DeLuca said. “As long as we keep getting better, we’re going to do some great things.”
Dunne might not define them as “great.” Perhaps “painful.” Or “debilitating.” UNI’s quarterback turned the ball over five times — three fumbles and two interceptions, including Grimsley’s pick-six that rescued an anemic Bison offense in the first half. NDSU also sacked Dunne six times. Poor Eli looked like a bug on a windshield for most of the afternoon, much like he looked last year in Cedar Falls when NDSU defensive lineman Brad Ambrosius separated Dunne’s helmet from his head.
The way DeLuca was streaking up the middle or barrelling off the edge, often untouched, Dunne is lucky his head didn’t get separated from his body.
“I knew we could get after him and (defensive coordinator Matt) Entz really dialed up some blitzes. I didn’t think they could block DeLuca, let’s be honest,” Klieman said. “Nick made some unbelievable plays and that’s why Nick has proven he’s one of the best players in FCS.”
Dunne is exactly the type of quarterback who is going to have problems against NDSU. He is not mobile, not a scrambler or runner in the mold of South Dakota State’s Taryn Christion or South Dakota’s Chris Streveler. He is, against the Bison anyway, a sitting duck.
“Without the ability to run and scramble with the quarterback, we were going to blitz and tee off,” Klieman said. “The guys did a great job with that. We forced them into some early throws in the second half and we got some interceptions.”
DeLuca had an extra burst on this day, looking like the player who dominated Jacksonville State in the FCS national title game a couple of years ago and so many other teams over the years. He had that half-step back that was missing since he injured a knee early this year. DeLuca said he had the knee drained this week and that gave him more range of motion and more strength in it.
“Nick is a prideful guy,” Klieman said. “When he comes off the edge and pressures, there are not a lot of guys who can block him. He’s so talented, so aggressive and so physical. He made some big plays when we needed a big play to be made and that’s a sign of an All-American.”
None were better than when DeLuca rocketed into the backfield on the Panthers’ first possession of the second half and stripped the ball from Dunne’s hand. Fellow linebacker Levi Jordheim recovered at the UNI 21, leading to a Cam Pedersen field goal. A game that was 7-7 at halftime was suddenly 17-7.
With the way the Bison defense was playing, it might as well have been 170-7. This defense gives NDSU’s offense some wiggle room to find its way after a slow start, which it most definitely had in the first half.
“Relax isn’t the right word,” quarterback Easton Stick said. “You understand that it’s a really good unit out there. They’re flying around out there and you know those guys are going to do great things.”
UNI, which had been running the ball up and down the field the last couple of weeks, finished with 48 rushing yards and 157 total yards. It was a nightmarish day for more than just Dunne.