UND expects Hornets to test pass game
GRAND FORKS -- In the University of North Dakota's convincing win over Sacramento State a year ago in the program's first official Big Sky Conference game, North Dakota was dominant on the ground behind a big game from running back Mitch Sutton.
In Saturday's rematch, coach Chris Mussman doesn't foresee the Hornets allowing UND to run wild.
"They'll come press you in man (coverage) and force you to throw deep," Mussman said. "They'll stack the box."
The Hornets, however, haven't been especially good at defending the pass. Sac State ranks 11th in the Big Sky, giving up 259.3 passing yards per game.
"They'll force you to throw the ball and get it to your receivers," Mussman said. "That's where we have to be productive enough in the run game."
Mussman understands the approach of Sac State with UND receiving inconsistent play from redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Mollberg, who has thrown for more than 1,200 yards but has five touchdowns to eight interceptions.
"I anticipate them coming after us and playing man and forcing a redshirt freshman quarterback to beat you," Mussman said. "If I were on the other side, that's the game plan that I would go with."
Fortunately for UND, Mussman feels Mollberg is coming off his best game of the season against Eastern Washington in which he threw for 355 yards -- albeit with one costly interception.
"You saw the beginning of a development of a quarterback," Mussman said.
Sac State might want to challenge UND's passing game, but Hornets coach Marshall Sperbeck sang the praises of North Dakota's receiving corps during the league's weekly teleconference.
"They have a good offense and the most talented group of receivers," Sperbeck said. "They'll be able to move the football around. We have to find a way to keep them in check."
Sperbeck said UND's 2-4 record is misleading.
"North Dakota is scary," he said. "They've played a very tough schedule."
For Sac State, the focus is regrouping after losing 39-38 to No. 19 Northern Arizona last week after leading by 17 points in the second half.
"No. 1, we have to look ahead and forget about last Saturday," Sperbeck said. "We need to get the team ready and focused on the upcoming game. We have to put energy into being a better football team this week."
Offensively, the Hornets rely on quarterback Garrett Safron, who Mussman compared to UND's 2012 standout Marcus Hendrickson -- strong-armed and athletic.
In the loss to Northern Arizona, Safron rushed for 110 yards and passed for 220. Safron averages 246 passing yards per game, which ranks fourth among Big Sky quarterbacks.
Sac State's running game is a bit of a mystery. Opening game starter Ezekiel Graham was injured in Week 5 and his backups Dejon Coleman and Demetrius Warren have also suffered injuries. The Hornets have turned to true freshman Jordan Robinson and converted fullback Brandon Kellerman.
Graham's return is unknown, and he isn't listed on the two-deep depth chart for the Hornets this week. However, UND saw a few weeks ago against Montana State that doesn't necessarily mean much. MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee was a last-minute starter and was a key reason the Bobcats cruised over UND.
"We assume (Graham) is going to play," Mussman said.