Bison offensive line key to success
FRISCO, Texas – Sept. 11, 2010, is a day the veteran members of the North Dakota State offensive line will not soon forget. That was the Saturday when Northern Iowa gave them a harsh Missouri Valley Football Conference lesson.
It was ugly. The Panthers had a team-record 11 quarterback sacks that sent the NDSU blockers back to the drawing board after a 16-9 loss.
“It went down as one of the worst games in school history,” said senior left tackle Billy Turner.
Turner remembers that game well, since it was his first college game at a school his brother attended. Saturday will be his 57th and last career game when NDSU takes on Towson University (Md.) for the FCS national title. How far has the Bison offensive line come?
Some would say it’s the best in school history.
“The best offensive line I’ve ever coached,” said Bison assistant Scott Fuchs. “They’ve been intelligent. Physical. They’ve done everything that’s been asked and they’ve been able to handle it.”
Fuchs is in his fifth year at NDSU and taking into account seven coaching stops that started in 1997 at Valley City State has been a part of nine conference championships. He played on the 1990 NDSU Division II national title team. So to put this Bison offensive line in a group of its own is saying something.
It’s been a steady climb since that fateful day at the UNI-Dome.
“After that game everything kind of got thrown out,” Turner said. “It wasn’t like we were starting fresh, but from that point forward, we just brought it upon ourselves to be the biggest and baddest offensive line in the country. And I think we’ve done that since then.”
Turner is the All-America anchor at left tackle. Zack Johnson has emerged this season at left guard with quick feet for a player who stands 6-foot-4 and 317 pounds. Josh Colville effectively took the reins from graduated center Joe Lund, who won the Rimington Award last season as the beset center in the FCS. Senior Tyler Gimmestad came to NDSU as a defensive lineman, but was moved to offense before his sophomore season.
“I was glad they made the switch,” he said. “In high school, the offensive line just clicked more for me.”
Perhaps the clinching piece of the puzzle was the rapid development of sophomore right tackle Joe Haeg, who went from an unheralded walk-on from Brainerd, Minn., in 2011 to a starter last year. He’s already caught the eye of a pro scout or two.
“The bigger wild card was probably Joe Haeg,” Fuchs said. “Once Joe started as a redshirt freshman, I think you started looking at the group and saying, ‘Wow, we have something pretty good here.’”
Quarterback Brock Jensen can attest. He’s rarely been consistently pressured in any game this season. Turner has not given up a sack with Jensen, going down just 18 times in 14 games. On the other side, the NDSU defense has sacked quarterbacks 41 times.
What the stats don’t tell you is the chemistry of the offensive line. Always a position that trends on being unselfish anyway, the NDSU unit is one of the most close-knit of any position groups on a team that overall is pretty tight, Gimmestad said.
Fuchs said they’ve never given him trouble as a coach.
“They understand, hey, there’s five of us, if one guy screws up, we all look bad,” he said. “It’s not like that at quarterback, receiver or defensive line and the five of them understand that. They’re always looking after each other. We’ve had some tough games through the years but they get it. The whole group gets it.”
Since 9-11-10, they’ve really gotten it. Turner said that game has continuously been brought up in the last four years as a reminder to stay humble.
“It’s one of those things you’re always going to remember and look back on as one of something that made you a better player,” he said.
Fuchs said calling the UNI game a turning point might be a little strong, but he did say expectations were raised.
“I told them – and they would agree – that something like that would never happen again,” he said.