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UND refocuses after a difficult stretch of games

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden University of North Dakota's Jameer Jackson, middle, gains yardage against Montana defenders Matt Hermanson (12) and Tyrone Holms (91) on Sept. 14 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS -- One of the dangers for the University of North Dakota football team opening the season against such strong competition -- four programs ranked No. 11 or better in the country -- is a program's ability to withstand adversity.

As North Dakota's schedule eases a bit beginning with unranked Sacramento State on Saturday, coach Chris Mussman feels his team has handled the hard times well.

"You can see the marked improvement from the earlier games to last week," Mussman said. "The kids continue to battle."

Between South Dakota State, Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington, UND has faced four schools that have been considered Top 10 programs at one point in time this year.

Of the five remaining games, only No. 19 Northern Arizona is ranked. The Lumberjacks are also the only team at this point above .500.

"We played a bunch of good teams in a row," UND linebacker Ben Peters said. "We had some chances in some games that we should have won. A couple of times, we just gave it to them.

"But the defense is starting to step up and the offense will get back to getting touchdowns. None of us are giving up."

That also doesn't mean the remainder of the schedule is easy.

Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado beat UND a year ago. This week's opponent, Sacramento State, led Northern Arizona 38-21 before losing 39-38. And remember, Northern Arizona beat Montana one week after the Grizzlies blew out North Dakota on Sept. 14.

"They're a good team," Peters said. "We have to make sure we're assignment sharp and get after them. We need to start getting more fumbles and interceptions."

With UND at 1-2 in the Big Sky and 2-4 overall, this stretch of games is critical for a program trying to make its mark in the league.

"We definitely have to win these games," UND running back Jer Garman said. "We played a really tough beginning of the year schedule, but we have some winnable games coming up."

An encouraging sign for UND against the Hornets is the team's success in Sacramento a year ago when North Dakota picked up a 35-13 victory in UND's first-ever Big Sky tilt. UND rushed for nearly 300 yards, forced three turnovers and thwarted two fourth-down conversions.

Mussman, however, downplays the significance of last year's matchup on this weekend's contest.

"Turnovers were the story of the game last year, and we took the air out of the football in the second half," Mussman said. "They've changed some schematically. They look different defensively from what I've seen."