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KOLPACK: Tough guy Stumpf is playing at an all-American level

FARGO -- It's been a fall full of beautiful Saturdays in the west parking lot of the Fargodome, even into November when the odds of wearing a light coat are not good. If you're into the tailgating thing, and thousands of you are, you couldn't hav...

North Dakota State linebacker MJ Stumpf is all smiles after returning an interception for a 40-yard touchdown against San Diego Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, during the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome.David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State linebacker MJ Stumpf returns an interception for a 40-yard touchdown against San Diego Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, during the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO - It's been a fall full of beautiful Saturdays in the west parking lot of the Fargodome, even into November when the odds of wearing a light coat are not good. If you're into the tailgating thing, and thousands of you are, you couldn't have picked better weather on Saturdays.

That wasn't the case this weekend, with a cold wind making the tents, buses and trailers almost mandatory. Unless you're of the tough-guy variety.

You know, like MJ Stumpf.

First, you gotta have the look. Long hair, a game face that has intensity written on it and the speed and toughness to play linebacker. It can't be confirmed, but it's possible Stumpf walked to Gate City Bank Field late Saturday morning in a T-shirt and jeans.

Where does he stand on the Tough Guy Meter?

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"He exceeds the charts in my mind," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. "If it's 10, he's a 15 because he's just a warrior, loves to play the game, loves to fly around and be with his brothers out there. He's playing at an all-American level and has all season long. It's not just sporadic, it's every game. He's a difference maker on defense."

He made a difference-maker type of play against the University of San Diego, a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown that started the scoring. The second round FCS playoff game ended 45-7 and the Bison advanced to the quarterfinals to play South Dakota State.

Afterward, Stumpf had blood spots on his yellow football pants, tape wrapped around one leg and his arms and wrist seemingly held together with more tape. He's the outside linebacker version of Dick Butkus.

The scoring play was initially diagnosed by cornerback Jalen Allison, who made what Klieman called the play of the game. He got his hands on a pass from San Diego quarterback Anthony Lawrence to receiver Brian Riley and the ball flopped up into the air for Stumpf to grab.

"I left it too far inside to Brian and their linebacker made a great play," Lawrence said. "I think it got us in a hole early, which we didn't want to do or I wanted to do. It was hard to come out of that hole."

Stumpf finished with a team-leading nine tackles. He's also the only remaining linebacker of the three that started the season. Senior Nick DeLuca played three games before injuring his shoulder and will most likely receive a medical hardship. Senior Pierre Gee-Tucker didn't play against the Toreros and his status for the Jackrabbits is uncertain, Klieman said.

In a sense, the defensive unit is playing for guys like DeLuca and defensive tackle Nate Tanguay, who is out with an ACL injury.

"Absolutely, with Pierre, Nick and Nate, they're all leaders on this team," Stumpf said. "They're great players on this team and great friends of mine, and all the guys are playing for them and each other. It causes other guys to raise their level of play. Those guys would do anything to be out there. It's tough for them to sit on the sideline, especially Pierre. He's someone who has a chance to get back, and it's big for us to get a win and hopefully get him back."

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The pick-six was the second one this season for Stumpf, who also turned the trick at the University of Iowa. The Bison have been down this road before, winning in postseason without a star linebacker. They did it without Grant Olson in 2013 and without Travis Beck in 2014.

The Toreros picked up yards against the Bison, it wasn't like it was a slam dunk shutout. They held a 35 minutes, 36 seconds to 24:24 time of possession advantage, although that was more because the Bison hit some home runs and scored quick. Jonah Hodges was a legitimate top-notch FCS running back and Lawrence had some nice completions.

But San Diego couldn't match the Bison toughness.

The Toreros had no MJ Stumpf on their sideline.

"MJ's toughness," said safety Tre Dempsey on what it takes to be a Bison linebacker. "You have to be a tough player. You have to communicate all the time. You have to know what you're doing. It takes a lot of individual work to be successful in our program, period."

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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