Nearly nothing in FCS college football has been as reliable as the North Dakota State defense these past four years. The Bison ranked in the top five nationally in both scoring and total defense again last year.
But this year's NDSU defensive crew is a bit of an unknown, having replaced at least seven full-time starters and perhaps eight by Saturday's kickoff because of preseason injuries. That's advantage Montana and the key to an opening victory may well lie in which side has the greater impact when North Dakota State's defense is on the field.
The Grizzlies take on the preseason No. 1 ranked Bison in a 1:30 p.m. start for ESPN's FCS Kickoff at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Bison graduated the core of 2014's championship defense with all of their starting linebackers gone. Junior Nick DeLuca saw some action after senior Travis Beck went down injured, but the middle of the field will be rather green otherwise.
And the D-line is missing the nation's defensive player of the year, Kyle Emanuel, while the secondary is thin an All-American at one safety spot and a four-year starter at the other. None of that's great news, NDSU coach Chris Kleiman acknowledged, but as you'd expect for a team coming off four straight national titles, the cupboards are far from bare.
Two cornerbacks return as well as two D-linemen.
"And if you're gonna be experience somewhere, I'd like to be experienced at corner and D-line," Kleiman said.
The Bison haven't had the benefit of watching much film on the Grizzlies either, collecting mostly tape of Colorado School of Mines – head coach Bob Stitt's former program – to review offensively.
What they'll see may be reflective of the Grizzlies who take the field this weekend, but only in scheme, Stitt said. His Montana team is a different monster all together.
The distinction is the personnel.
"The difference is now we can knock the top off of the coverage with our wide receivers and that wasn't the case last year," Stitt said. "People could do some different things to us defensively and if they try to do it again this year, we should be able to get some big plays on 'em."
With the changes on both sides of the ball, fans can expect a different feel to Saturday's game than when the teams met last year in Fargo. The Bison emerged from the defensive battle 22-10 on the leg of kicker Adam Keller, who booted a school-record five field goals.
And while this year's bout should see an uptick in scoring, Stitt still anticipates a world-class challenge from the NDSU defense.
"You don't win four national championships in a row and not be able to reload at some time," Stitt said. "They went through adversity before. They lost their head coach and the new guy comes in and goes 15-1 and wins it."
Kleiman took over last year for head man Craig Bohl, who also beat the Grizzlies in his new gig at Wyoming in 2014. Kleiman led the NDSU defense as coordinator for two seasons prior – both ending in Bison national titles.
That makes the biggest difference in the young defenders hitting the ground running in 2015. The Bison are almost a full college football generation into Kleiman's reign as NDSU defensive guru.
"The faces on defense will be different, but we're playing the same defense that we have the past four years," senior Bison cornerback Jordan Champion said. "Our philosophy, our beliefs are all the same."
The rest will be made up from what he and fellow returning starters defensive tackles Brian Schaetz and Nate Tanguay can impart on their fresher teammates.
"I've definitely had to be a teacher now," said Champion, the team's leading returning tackler after ranking sixth with 68 stops in 2014. "It's my time to share that knowledge with the younger guys and help them get better every day."
The Bison may be without CJ Smith, the team's other starting cornerback a year ago, as he continues to recover from a knee injury. Smith has been out since having surgery to repair a torn meniscus back in April.
Coach Kleiman said Smith has been practicing this week and will be a game-time decision. Should the senior miss Saturday's game, the Bison starting defensive backfield will feature two sophomores and a redshirt freshman to pair with Champion.
Montana has been dealing with its own injuries. Outside of a few more serious injuries to center Ben Weyer (knee) and safety Jake Dallasera (shoulder), most are day-to-day sort of things.
"We banged every day that we were out there, but we gave them plenty of rest," Stitt said. "Other than just a few freak injuries, we are healthy."
Weyer won't play this weekend and Stitt said the junior may still be a few weeks away from recovering from his own knee injury. The coach does expect to see second-string running back Lorenzo Logwood (ankle) in pads for the game, though.
Sophomore Robert Luke will start in Weyer's place at center.
Other injured players WR Chase Naccarato (ankle) and RB Joey Counts (foot) were both suited for Wednesday's practice.
The Griz are also without starting outside linebacker Herbert Gamboa as her serves his one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons.