The fact that North Dakota has surrendered 35, 55 and 45 points in its three Big Sky Conference losses would seem to bode well for the Montana Grizzlies.
Then again, UND went to Sacramento State – a squad that is 5-2 and sitting near the top of the Big Sky football standings – and prevailed 35-13 on Sept. 22.
It’s anyone’s guess as to which North Dakota team will show up for Montana Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MDT, but the visiting Griz don’t plan on a warm welcome. To get back on track they’ll have to overcome an explosive UND offense. Solving their own inconsistency on offense would help.
“The great thing about this game is that if you really love football, you know that you get another opportunity,” said UM coach Mick Delaney, whose club has lost three of four games. “That’s what we have this weekend against a very, very good North Dakota team.
“They’re very big and physical on offense and they’re a little bit of a scramble-around scheme on defense. We’ll have our hands full, like we do every week.”
The Griz would do well to slow one of the league’s most balanced and prolific attacks. North Dakota completes a lot of passes to Greg Hardin and Jameer Jackson – the duo has 15 touchdowns between them – and hands the ball off a ton to Mitch Sutton (nine TDs) and Jake Miller.
Braden Hanson is UND’s starting quarterback, a 6-foot-5 lefty who has completed 74 percent of his passes in action limited by some injuries. Last week a hit to the head drove Hanson out of a 45-38 loss to Northern Arizona – “I guess the technical term is he got his bell rung,” UND coach Chris Mussman said – and backup Marcus Hendrickson came in to throw his 15th TD pass of the season.
Whoever slings it, Hardin can burn and the 240-pound Jackson is a load.
“He’s physical,” said Griz corner Nate Harris, who gives away roughly 65 pounds to Jackson. “He does push off a lot and he’s a great blocker.
“I’m excited. I like to be physical and I pride myself on that. Being a smaller corner, some people want to doubt me.”
Harris had his first interception two weeks ago and his recent play has mirrored that of UM’s improving secondary. The Griz defense played well until late in last week’s 30-20 loss to Southern Utah; well enough to win, in Delaney’s mind.
It was on offense and special teams where they faltered; particularly in the second half on offense.
“We have to capitalize when our defense gets us turnovers or when we’re in good field position,” said Griz quarterback Trent McKinney, a freshman who’ll make his eighth start. “Most importantly, when we’re backed up we have to get the ball out of there.
“Quit having three-and-outs, and actually get down the field and have a drive.”
Bruising running back Dan Moore (ankle) is still sidelined for the Griz, meaning more carries for Peter Nguyen and Jordan Canada – depending, of course, on how UM executes.
Sam Gratton, who missed the Southern Utah game with the flu, will be back at receiver. But again, Montana threw the ball well before intermission last week against the Thunderbirds.
“The biggest problem is we just came out flat,” McKinney said. “We couldn’t get the run game going – our “G” (zone blocking) scheme wasn’t working. We didn’t execute the offense as well as we wanted to.”
Saturday brings a new challenge. UND runs a 3-4 defense built around nose guard David Benjamin, a 303-pound senior.
“Defensively they’re just solid,” Delaney said. “I don’t know they have any all-stars, so to speak (but) their nose tackle is a pretty good player.
“I think their front seven is the strength of their football team.”
The Alerus Center could well sell out and the Griz can expect a sea of black – UND has called for a “blackout” of the game – and major noise in what is the Big Sky’s third domed football venue.
It’ll be a first for most of the Griz; Montana hasn’t played in Grand Forks since 1973, and the Alerus Center opened in 2001. Tight end Greg Hardy canceled a planned recruiting trip to UND there after committing to UM.
“I heard it gets loud and gets rocking and rolling,” he said.
It sounds sort of like Washington-Grizzly Stadium, where the Griz have lost two straight games for the first time. Saturday brings a chance to turn a difficult season right-side up.
“When you get bucked off a horse, you can either stay on the ground and die in the dirt, or get back on and go,” said Hardy, who leads the Griz in receptions. “That’s how we’re kind of looking at things. We’re going to go out there and just give it all we can, and enjoy playing this great game.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Fritz_Neighbor.