When it was announced that Nick DeLuca would miss the rest of the season, it was certainly a blow. DeLuca is currently the most talented player on the NDSU roster, and potentially the most talented defensive player since Marcus Williams. With that said, it was a manageable blow. DeLuca's replacement was Matt Plank, a talented fourth year junior. With a little adjustment to the sub package and Plank's ability to play the run, the loss was largely mitigated.
NDSU lost another defensive star for the season when Nate Tanguay tore his ACL against Youngstown State. Tanguay, like DeLuca, was an All American level talent along the defensive front. Tanguay did not have such a ready-made replacement on the roster.
The Bison have just four true defensive tackles left. Injuries and recruiting attrition have let the Bison thin on the defensive interior. Grant Morgan and Aaron Steidl are starting. Both players have been part of the rotation in the past and are capable run stuffers. Steidl also provides a little pass rush. The depth is now made up of a few new players.
Jack Darnell is a redshirt freshman from the Twin Cities. Darnell spent last season on the developmental squad with Coach Kramer, and at 6'2", 291 pounds already looks the part. Blake Williams, a sophomore, spent two seasons on the very same squad, adding weight. Williams came to campus weighing 238 pounds. He entered in to Kramer's "see-food" diet (if you see food you eat it). Williams is now 287 pounds, and does a good job filling in at either the "1" or "3" technique.
The "Alley Cats" (all NDSU position groups have nicknames, the LBs are the Head Hunters, the DBs are the Wolf Pack, etc...) have attempted to mitigate Tanguay's loss in a number of ways. Williams and Darnell are stepping up. Caleb Butler is providing snaps all across NDSU's four-man front. Cole Karcz is providing pass-rush snaps from the interior as well. Karcz is a young defensive end who hasn't broken in to that rotation quite yet.
"We're running a little thin at the D Tackle spot, so we don't want Grant or Aaron taking 50, 60 snaps. It's a lot easier than it was in the start. Getting in to the Valley schedule and having more consistent game plans has been pretty good for me. The game is slowing down a lot, I'm recognizing backfield sets and know our playbook inside and out" said Williams.
The defensive ends are stepping up their games, as well. Without Tanguay and his presence as an interior pass rusher, pressure on the quarterback has to be almost exclusively provided from the defensive ends or via a blitz. While Entz dialed up a few more blitzes against Indiana State (both PGT and MJ Stumpf were in on a sack), the main principles of the defense are based on rushing four and dropping seven.
Over the course of the last three games, Greg Menard and Brad Ambrosious have five sacks between the two of them. While they're playing in a much deeper rotation than they were a season ago, both players have remained very productive. Ambrosious is providing excellent run defense and QB contain, Menard is rushing the passer consistently, but still looking for that explosive game. Menard had multiple 2+ sack games a season ago. That type of a breakout game hasn't come this season.
"I think that's definitely something Coach Cain and I have talked about. It's been missing, that game with three sacks, four sacks. I like the consistently but I'm waiting for that game where I explode" said Menard.
Menard himself has been used a number of different ways this season as well. Menard has played his traditional defensive end position, rushed from the inside, and played both outside linebacker standing up and blitzed from a traditional inside linebacker position in a two-point stance. This versatility will help Menard in the future, because at his size, his pass rushing ability is going to be requested by teams playing a 3-4 scheme with Menard as an outside linebacker.
At this point in the season, it's clear nobody's going to be able to run the football, at least conventionally against NDSU. Tanguay's replacements are very, very good run stuffers. So is Plank. If the Bison struggle during the playoffs, it's going to be against a passing offense. It's up to the replacements at defensive tackle, and the stalwarts at defensive end to supplement the improved secondary with an effective pass rush. So far, so good.