UND seniors have seen program’s highs, lows
By Wayne Nelson
Currently, that group is experiencing perhaps the lowest of the lows as UND tries to pull out of a midseason tailspin today at Portland State.
UND takes a 1-3 league record (2-5 overall) into JELD-WEN Stadium against another team desperate for a win as Portland is 0-3 in the Big Sky and 3-4 overall.
UND, however, is in territory it hasn’t visited for decades, having lost its five games by an average margin of 26.6 points. And with three of its final four games on the road, UND now has to somehow right a ship that hasn’t sunk but one that is listing badly.
The final month of UND’s season will be challenging, considering North Dakota is struggling on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense. Also, UND’s turnover ratio is minus-15, which ranks 122nd out of 123 FCS teams.
There is nowhere to go but up, especially after last week’s 31-7 loss at home against Sacramento State — a setback that was demoralizing considering it was the fifth-straight UND loss at home.
“Like I told the kids Saturday after the game and on Sunday, eventually in life you’ll deal with adversity, whether it will be the death of a parent or whatever it might be,” said UND coach Chris Mussman. “You have two choices. You can stay in bed and hope things get better. Or you can get back to work. We choose to get back to work.”
UND will focus on its seniors during the final month of the season.
The 13 players were true freshmen during UND’s first season of Division I football.
“These seniors have been through a lot,” Mussman said. “Our seniors have basically taken us through the transition. They were the first class in (the transition). They have been part of a (Great West) conference championship, a nationally ranked team, a 3-8 team and the first (UND) team to play in the Big Sky.
“I want these kids to go out the proper way. They’ve been a prominent class in our transition.”
To leave with some flair, UND will have to figure out a way to cut down on turnovers and continue to improve on defense.
“We haven’t done anything offensively the last couple of weeks,” Mussman said. “We came into the year thinking we’re going to be pretty good offensively. But you still have to go out and work hard and do the things you’re supposed to do every day in practice.
“Apparently, that hasn’t sunk in.”
Today’s game could be a turnover-fest.
Portland State has committed 23 turnovers this season, to UND’s 21.
However, Portland’s offense is one of the best in the Big Sky and leads the league in total offense (537 yards per game). And running back D.J. Adams is third in league rushing (106.1 ypg).
UND’s offense has produced only four touchdowns in its last three games. And quarterbacks Joe Mollberg and Ryan Bartels have combined for only seven TD passes this season and 12 interceptions. Last season, UND quarterbacks threw 30 touchdown passes.
But blame isn’t confined to the two redshirt freshmen quarterbacks.
“We need to buckle down, all over,” said center Shay Walker. “The O-line needs to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. We need to establish a running game and that can’t happen if we don’t get it done up front.
“Things just haven’t clicked. We have the guys. We do; I honestly think that. We just need to make plays.”
Mussman said the focus this week has been on UND, not Portland State.
And he wants his team to prove one thing during the final month of the season.
What does he want to see?
“That they have some heart, which I know they do,” Mussman said.
After UND’s loss last week, Mussman hinted there could be a number of lineup changes for today’s game.
Mollberg, however, will start again at quarterback, said the UND coach.
UND’s glaring weakness the past two weeks has been the play of its offense — in all areas.
Defensively, however, UND still ranks toward the bottom of the Big Sky but the defense has been putting up better numbers recently.
“We’re definitely playing better be we still have work to do,” said UND defensive lineman Ben Henson. “We’re still giving up too many yards, too many points. No matter what the offense does, that’s not up to us. We still have to do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt.”
Today’s game is the inaugural Turkey Bowl. The first 5,000 fans that purchase adult tickets will receive a voucher for a 10-pound turkey … Portland’s offense ranks third in the FCS … The Vikings have totaled more than 600 yards of offense in three games this season … Defensive end Nick Alexander’s grandfather is former Minnesota Vikings great Carl Eller. Alexander is a Portland senior who has 17 tackles and a sack this season … UND beat Portland 45-37 last year in a nonconference game at the Alerus … This will be UND’s first game outdoors this season … UND running back Adam Shaugabay has 18 carries this season, six of which have gone for touchdowns.