UND looks to hit back at Big Sky today
GRAND FORKS -- Life in the Big Sky Conference for the University of North Dakota, it seemed, was pretty good a month ago.
UND defeated Big Sky teams Portland State and Sacramento State, wins that may have created a false sense of security for a program trying to make its mark as a first-year member in the league.
The Green and White received a major dose of Big Sky reality last week. Eastern Washington showed UND what it takes to compete at the top level of the league. UND limped out of Cheney, Wash., on the wrong end of a 55-17 decision.
Today, UND goes back to the drawing board as it hosts No. 18 Northern Arizona at the Alerus Center in another Big Sky game that also serves as the homecoming game for the Green and White.
It's been a rough two weeks for UND.
UND's loss at Eastern Washington was the most lopsided setback for the program since 1986. The week before, Cal Poly beat UND 35-17 at the Alerus Center. In that game -- the first official Big Sky home game for UND -- the Mustangs took advantage of a handful of fourth-quarter North Dakota mistakes to pull away.
UND has learned plenty in its first month of Big Sky play.
"You have to play nearly perfect or it can get out of hand in a hurry," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "Against Portland State and Sac State, we created big plays and things escalated from there.
"We led Cal Poly in the fourth quarter and we make a couple of mistakes. And then the game gets out of hand."
At Eastern Washington last week, UND pulled to within 13-10 before a 99-yard kickoff return left North Dakota reeling.
"The margin of error is very, very small," Mussman said.
Today, UND's focus will be on Northern Arizona running back Zach Bauman, the second-leading rusher in the Big Sky. Bauman, a first-team all-Big Sky pick a year ago, averages 118.2 yards per game and has rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his NAU career.
"He's probably the best running back we've seen at the FCS level so far," Mussman said. "And they do a great job with their (blocking) schemes. The schemes are simple. But they're very good in what they do."
UND has another big concern -- it's run defense.
What once was a staple of the program, now is a concern as UND has had trouble stopping the run this season. UND is allowing 232.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the Big Sky.
Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers expects UND will sell out against the run.
"They have a lot of (offensive) weapons and they put up a lot of points and a lot of yards," Souers said. "They're (near the top) in pass defense and I'm sure they're going to load up against our run game so we're going to have to be balanced."
UND's defense has struggled the last two weeks. This week, injuries on the defensive side of the ball have become an even bigger concern.
Defensive end Ross Brenneman is not expected to play. Also, nose guard Devin Benjamin is doubtful.
Linebacker Garrison Goodman, who did not play last week, also is doubtful.
The noise in the Alerus Center shouldn't be a big problem for Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks play in the 9,000-seat Walkup Skydome ... Souers on preparing for UND: "There are going to be a lot of unknowns in playing a team we haven't played before. We don't know how they make their adjustments, how they run plays and we'll be in a dome we've never played in before, but the team has been in hostile environments already this year and we've been able to adapt to some of the unseens."