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UND expects more out of its defense

GRAND FORKS -- When facing the weekly media gathering earlier this week at Memorial Stadium, University of North Dakota defensive coordinator Mike Mannausau didn't make any excuses when answering questions about his defense following a two-week period in which North Dakota has given up 90 points.

"There is a high expectation of great defense around here," said Mannausau as his team prepares for Saturday's 2 p.m. homecoming matchup with Northern Arizona at the Alerus Center. "It's been disappointing not living up to that standard the last two weeks. It all starts with our run defense. We've got to do a better job.

"As coaches, we've got to put our guys in better positions. And as players, they have to make plays in those positions. In both those regards the last two weeks, we have fallen short."

UND's run defense, a staple of North Dakota's dominant years in NCAA Division II, has disappeared this season.

UND is giving up 232.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th of 13 Big Sky Conference teams.

UND is giving up 5.8 yards per carry. Against Division I opponents, UND has given up 214 rushing yards to Portland State, 292 to San Diego State, 255 to Sacramento State, 321 to Cal Poly and 290 to Eastern Washington.

Just last season, against a weaker schedule, UND allowed 2.6 yards per carry. Still, UND was stout against the run last season against some comparable opponents. Only once did UND give up more than 200 yards rushing in a game last season.

Against Northern Colorado in 2011, UND gave up minus-16 rushing yards. It gave up 23 to Southern Utah and 75 to UC Davis.

UND graduated four of its top five tacklers from 2011, led by linebacker Dan Hendrickson, but the drop-off in run defense still has been unexpected.

Mannausau wouldn't blame the tough Big Sky schedule for the drastic turnaround in rush defense numbers.

"Talent is going to be good week in and week out, and if you don't bring your best you're going to be exposed," Mannausau said. "The biggest thing as a program is we need to play with passion. That's the key to defense -- playing with an edge. At times, we haven't done that the last couple of weeks. That's probably our biggest concern."

UND had been stout against the run during the transition, while its pass defense has been suspect. Statistically, the opposite has held true this year.

UND's pass defense ranks second in the Big Sky averaging 189.8 yards per game through the air.

"Our point of emphasis this week is we have to play solid defense," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "We might have to sell out for the run. People aren't throwing on us; they're running it.

"The biggest thing is tackling for us. We can get lined up where we need to be and when we do we have to make those plays."

UND's run defense is especially under the microscope this week as UND will face arguably the best running back in the Big Sky in Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman, who is averaging 118.2 yards per game.

"He's unbelievable," Mussman said. "You have to contain him. He's probably the best we've seen at the FCS level so far."

UND's defense has dealt with a handful of injuries, but Mannausau said that's no excuse.

"We're nicked up, but so is every team we're playing," Mannausau said.

UND traveled to Cheney, Wash., without leading tackler Garrison Goodman. UND defensive linemen Devin Benjamin and Ross Brenneman, as well as linebacker Derrick Goard also battled injuries against the Eagles.

UND is hopeful Goodman can return this week against the Lumberjacks.

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 13 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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