Southern Utah, UND know each other wellGRAND FORKS — For the first time in about a month, the University of North Dakota will have a sense of familiarity today when Southern Utah comes to the Alerus Center.
By: Wayne Nelson, Forum Communications
GRAND FORKS — For the first time in about a month, the University of North Dakota will have a sense of familiarity today when Southern Utah comes to the Alerus Center.
But will that familiarity help lead UND to a strong finish in its first season in the Big Sky Conference?
That’s the only remaining question facing UND as the program tries to recover from the damage of last week’s 45-point loss at powerful Montana State.
UND and Southern Utah will play for the sixth straight season and the Thunderbirds are the only team that North Dakota has played every year since it made the move to Division I.
UND is 2-4 in the Big Sky and 4-5 overall. UND’s mission now is to win its final two games to finish .500 in the league and 6-5 overall. UND’s final game comes in two weeks against Northern Colorado, another team familiar to UND.
“It’s easier to understand what needs to happen in order to win,” said UND senior defensive linemen Ross Brenneman said of a familiar opponent. “When you play teams for the first time, it’s a challenge. You can watch as much tape as you want but you won’t know what’s on the field until you show up on Saturday.”
UND knows SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen is on the NFL radar. Sorensen, a 6-foot-5 senior, is fifth among active FCS quarterbacks with 8,857 passing yards. He’s thrown for 2,551 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
“He’s a throwing threat and as a defensive lineman that’s pretty frustrating,” Brenneman said. “And they have a good offensive line. It’s hard to get home and he makes you pay when you don’t get there.”
UND beat SUU 26-20 last season in Cedar City. It was UND’s first road win against a ranked opponent in the program’s Division I era.
Daryl Brown’s intercepted Sorensen in the end zone late in the game to seal the win.
On paper, the game should be another Big Sky shootout.
UND’s offense ranks fourth in the Big Sky. Defensively, however, both teams rank near the bottom. UND ranks 12th, allowing 480 yards per game while SUU is 11th as the Thunderbirds give up 443 yards.
Another reason for a shootout: The teams rank 1-2 in the league in red zone offense. SUU converts on 93.5 percent while in the red zone while UND converts 91.4 percent of the time. Those percentages rank third and ninth, respectively, among all FCS teams.
SUU, however, has the momentum. The Thunderbirds (3-3, 4-5) knocked off Eastern Washington last week. Eastern was the country’s No. 1 team at the time.
The Thunderbirds’ win didn’t shock Brenneman.
“To say I was surprise, I don’t know,” Brenneman said. “This is a good league. That’s why anybody can beat anybody.”
UND has a good grasp on Southern Utah. But the Thunderbirds still may be the mystery team of the Big Sky Conference.
SUU lost 24-17 to No. 3 Montana State but lost 24-22 to Weber State — the only win of the season for the Wildcats. Then last week, SUU stuns Eastern Washington 30-27.
SUU also is a plus 14 in turnover ratio — a league-leading statistic that doesn’t make a lot of sense for a 4-5 team.
“They’re 3-3 in the league and that’s an interesting statistic,” UND coach Chris Mussman said. “But they have a good football team. We’ve played them enough to know that.”
SUU is 3-2 all time against UND. The Thunderbirds are 2-0 at the Alerus Center, including a 15-14 win in 2008. “That’s the one that sticks out the most,” Mussman said. “That game was right there for us.” The Thunderbirds picked up a key first down on a fake punt attempt and won the game with a late two-point conversion … UND junior receiver Greg Hardin needs 12 yards today to become the sixth player in program history to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season … Sixteen UND seniors will play their last home game today.