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North Dakota's defense showing positive signs

FNS Photo by John Stennes North Dakota's Seth Stanchik, middle, pressures Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., during a game on Saturday at the Alerus Center.

GRAND FORKS -- After shouldering heavy criticism much of the past two seasons, the University of North Dakota football team's defense has put together back-to-back encouraging performances against Idaho State and No. 6 Eastern Washington.

UND coach Chris Mussman, whose team host Sacramento State on Saturday afternoon at the Alerus Center, said the improvement hasn't been so much about X's and O's.

"The energy and passion you watch them play with has really stepped up," Mussman said. "I give the credit to our defensive staff. The kids have bought in."

Against Eastern Washington, UND's defense limited the Eagles to 408 yards of total offense -- more than 100 yards below the team's season average. Eastern Washington racked up 625 yards of total offense earlier this season against Oregon State of the FBS.

"We're just sticking with the game plan," UND linebacker Ben Peters said. "The coaches have been telling us to stick to the process and it'll come ... and it has. We're holding teams down in the run, which has been big. We've been making more and more tackles."

One personnel change also has provided a spark for UND, which inserted true freshman safety Cam Kuksa into the starting lineup and moved safety Chavon Mackey to cornerback.

That change came two weeks ago against Idaho State, a timing that doesn't seem to be a coincidence with the unit's progression.

"We targeted him or Cole (Reyes) to step in and help us right away," Mussman said. "Cole injured his hand in fall camp. But with Cam, from the minute he stepped in you could see his athleticism ... the way he transitions in and out of his breaks. He hits. He's going to throw it up in there."

Kuksa, the only true freshman to earn a start this year, has 24 tackles in five games. Kuksa has one sack and is tied for the team lead with two pass breakups.

"He breaks on a ball the way we need to," Mussman said. "For him to step up and move Chavon to corner has made us tougher at that spot, too. That combination has really helped us. Cam's a great player and has a great future in front of him."

The play of linebackers Dominique Bennett and Garrison Goodman has also provided a boost.

Bennett has collected three sacks in the past two games and leads UND with four on the season. The team as a whole has just seven sacks. Against EWU, Bennett had five tackles, two for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

Goodman led the team in tackles with eight against Eastern Washington, marking the third time in his five games he has done that. Goodman and Peters are tied for the team lead in tackles with 34.

"The defense has been big," UND running back Jer Garman said. "It pushes us harder as an offense when we see the defense making big plays. You want to go out there and do the same thing. It's really good to see our defense play like that the past couple of weeks."