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UND, MSU look forward to begin Big Sky play

AP Photo Montana State defenders Austin Barth (15) and Cody Kirk (25) wrap up Stephen F. Austin State wide receiver Mike Brooks (2) during the first half of a NCAA football game on Sept. 21 in Nacogdoches, Texas.

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota's trip to Bozeman, Mont., last season is one that hasn't been forgotten at Memorial Stadium. Simply, it's hard to forget the kind of whipping Montana State put on North Dakota last season -- UND's first in the Big Sky Conference.

UND players walked off the turf at Bobcat Stadium a year ago on the wrong end of a 55-10 drubbing -- a loss that remains the worst in North Dakota's Division I era.

And the Bobcats didn't run it up, either. In the fourth quarter, Montana State rushed for 196 yards on 20 attempts. The Bobcats threw the ball only once in the final 15 minutes.

"They didn't get our best effort," said UND coach Chris Mussman.

Far from it.

But a much better effort is UND's mission in today's game against the Bobcats, who will play in Grand Forks for the first time since 1983.

Both teams are at a crossroad.

Montana State, looking for its fourth-straight Big Sky title, is 2-2 -- reeling from a string of injuries that has claimed quarterback DeNarius McGhee, arguable the best player in the league.

The Bobcats lost McGhee to a shoulder injury late in a 31-30 loss at SMU on Sept. 7. Last week, Montana State lost 52-38 to explosive Stephen F. Austin in Texas.

Montana State officials earlier said McGhee won't play until sometime in October. But there has been speculation he may be ready sooner than that. Whether he plays today, however, is up in the air.

Mussman said he hopes McGhee will play.

"We want to play against their best," he said.

UND comes into today's game looking for any kind of a spark after a 55-17 home loss against Montana two weeks ago. North Dakota has now dropped back-to-back home games against South Dakota State and Montana -- now the No. 6 and No. 7 teams in the latest FCS national poll.

But it's the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams today; in essence the previous month has been wiped away for both. And both programs welcome that thought.

UND's goal is to play a crisper brand of football on both sides of the ball. A lack of discipline has been UND's biggest nemesis through the first month of the season.

"We have to play disciplined football," Mussman said. "If we go out there and play our best, don't turn the ball over, limit our mistakes and we get beat, we can live with that. But when you go out there and lay an egg and dig yourself a hole, we have to avoid that."

Big Sky strength

Five Big Sky teams are ranked in this week's FCS top 25 poll. Two -- Eastern Washington (No. 2) and Montana (No. 7) are in the top 10. Montana State is No. 11 after sitting at No. 3 last week.

Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton will be at today's game. He attended the UND fan luncheon Friday and said Montana has become somewhat of a surprise this season.

The Grizzlies -- a perennial FCS power -- were 5-6 last season but have looked impressive so far this year.

"With their quarterback (Jordan Johnson) back and their running game, they look really good," Fullerton said. "Eastern Washington doesn't surprise me at all. They're legitimate.

"And we'll see how Montana State can react without the heart of their program (McGhee)."

Fullerton said he still expects UND to become a contender in Big Sky football.

"I have no doubt that they will find a way and commit to what needs to be done to be competitive in the Big Sky," said the commissioner.

An early splash

UND is in its second Big Sky season but the North Dakota football program already has made an impact in the league.

In honor of 50 seasons of athletics, the Big Sky is counting down its top 50 moments and 50 players in league history.

The first five of the league's top moments were released earlier this week.

Braden Hanson's passing performance against Montana last year checks in at No. 46.

Hanson threw for a Big Sky record 660 yards against the Griz as UND won 40-34.

"We certainly didn't expect to pass for that many yards," said Hanson, who transferred from North Carolina to play his final season at UND. "We wanted to start fast. Montana was a good team. At one point midway through the second quarter, I saw that I had 400 passing yards and I was kind of surprised."

Hanson's 660 passing yards also were the most by a left-handed quarterback in NCAA history at any level.

"That's a pretty interesting achievement, and something I will always be proud of," Hanson told the league. "I always hated hearing how left-handers weren't as good, the ball spins different, blah, blah, blah. I'm very proud of that record."

Hanson is now working in the Chicago financial district.

Etc. etc. etc.

- Mussman officially has not named a starting quarterback for today's game. Both Joe Mollberg and Ryan Bartels are expected to play. Both are redshirt freshmen. But it's expected Mollberg will get the starting nod.

- A crowd of between 9,000 and 10,000 is expected for today's game.

- Today's game also will be televised in Montana on Max Media.

- Montana State defensive end Brad Daly leads the FCS in sacks (8).