With a rookie quarterback conundrum and a real problem stopping the run, North Dakota looks ripe for the picking for No. 11 Montana on Saturday.
But not so fast.
The Green and White showed last week they’re capable of playing with just about anyone, putting a scare into No. 6-ranked South Dakota State before dropping a 35-28 home decision. UND played particularly well in the fourth quarter – it scored twice before a turnover at midfield with 1:31 left killed a potential game-tying drive – and will take momentum into its game against the Grizzlies.
“We found ourselves a way to claw back into that ball game with two minutes left and that’s what was most exciting,” said NoDak senior running back Jake Miller, whose team trailed 28-7 late in the third quarter. “There’s no such thing as moral victories. But we’ll take some of those experiences we learned and use them for this game, knowing we have the ability to do some great things.”
One thing is for certain: North Dakota (1-1) will not be intimidated by Montana (1-0) when the teams collide for the second straight year at the Alerus Center in a nonconference tilt. The Griz surrendered a Big Sky Conference-record 660 passing yards in losing to UND last October, 40-34.
“We talk about trying to forget last year, but that being said, we haven’t forgotten what they did,” Montana defensive end Zack Wagenmann said. “It’s definitely in the forefront of our minds. We don’t want to have a repeat. We’re looking forward to the game.”
NoDak coach Chris Mussman looks for an even tougher test than last week.
“I think Montana is a better football team,” he said in comparing the Griz to the Jackrabbits. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
One big difference between this year and last for NoDak is at the quarterback position. The Green and White no longer have a seasoned senior at the position. Instead they’ve been going back and forth between two redshirt freshmen, Ryan Bartels and Joe Mollberg.
The latter was better against South Dakota State, throwing for two TD passes in one eight-minute sequence in the second half. But both struggled at times guiding an offense that turned the ball over three times and accounted for a lot of North Dakota’s 10 penalties for 107 yards.
“Both those quarterbacks are real similar,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said. “They’re 6-foot-3 plus guys, 220-ish, strong guys that would rather throw than run but they will extend the play and get out of the pocket and make throws.
“They had planned on playing two quarterbacks at least early in the season and I believe they’ll continue that this week. They both have had good moments and have shown they can take a hit.”
Young quarterbacks are more susceptible to interceptions and Mussman can certainly vouch for that. Mollberg and Bartels both threw costly ones last week.
It doesn’t help that North Dakota relies heavily on the pass. Last week the team was out-gained on the ground, 298 yards to 21.
“As a pass rusher it’s fun going against those pass-first mentality teams,” Wagenmann said. “We pride ourselves in being good at (rushing the QB) so getting an opportunity to validate that is always fun.
“Putting hits on the quarterback, it makes him think about if he wants to hang on to the ball and stay in the pocket. The timing of the receivers, it starts speeding up their clock when you start getting hits on the QB.”
Another ongoing area of concern for NoDak is run defense. The Green and White ranked next to last in the Big Sky in that category last year and surrendered a whopping 296 yards on 37 carries to South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner.
In all fairness, Zenner led the FCS in rushing last year and has been a one-man wrecking crew against a lot of teams. Whether Montana’s tandem of Jordan Canada and Travon Van can inflict the same kind of damage at running back remains to be seen. But certainly history is on their side after they combined for 230 yards in a debut win over Appalachian State.
“We’re going in expecting to be able to run the ball,” Canada said. “We definitely have some stuff we’re looking to take advantage of with Coach K (UM co-offensive coordinator Kefense Hynson) cooking it up.”
Montana is coming off a bye week in which the players were given time away from the day-to-day practice grind. The Griz are back at full speed this week, anxious to atone for their disappointing 2-3 road record last season.
“It’s tough just to really stay focused,” Canada said of the bye week. “We get extra time to watch film, but the coaches kind of take it easy on us.”
Only time will tell if Montana looks rested or rusty coming out of the chute Saturday. Mussman, for one, believes the Griz have reached a higher level this season.
“They’re a lot better,” he said. “Defensively they return eight-plus guys. Their quarterback makes them a lot better, their running backs and receivers ... They’re a much better football team and they were very good when they came here last year.”
QUICK KICKS: Delaney said Tuesday that No. 1 tight end Clay Pierson will only be used “in an emergency situation” Saturday. He broke a bone in his hand against App State and is wearing a cast ... Mussman reported that a handful of his players are nursing nagging injuries but nothing that should prevent any of them from playing Saturday ... Mussman was reluctant to name a starting quarterback until later in the week and says both of his redshirt freshmen will probably play ... Montana plays three dome games this season. Besides Saturday’s tilt, it will play indoors at Northern Arizona and South Dakota ... NoDak whipped Valparaiso 69-10 in its home debut Aug. 29.