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UND takes on No. 14 Lumberjacks

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The youth of the North Dakota football team is never more apparent than it is when the team plays a road game.

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Today, UND will play at Northern Arizona. Before UND heads for the Walkup Skydome, however, the players will enjoy a pregame meal at Little America. That’s when North Dakota’s youth becomes — as the season has revealed — painfully obvious.

Seniors hit the food line first, followed by juniors, sophomores and freshmen.

“The first 20 or so guys in line are in the first two classes,” said UND coach Chris Mussman. “The rest of the 58 players are freshmen and sophomores. That’s part of our struggles. But it’s not an excuse. We have to grow up and continue to learn from these experiences.”

Today’s experience will have UND taking on No. 14 Northern Arizona — a 6-2 team that has a realistic shot at reaching the FCS playoffs and is still in contention for a Big Sky title at 4-1.

North Dakota, with its season-long struggles, certainly won’t be favored against a team with perhaps the best running back in the Big Sky Conference.

Zach Bauman is 25 yards short of another 1,000-yard rushing season for Northern Arizona. He’ll be the catalyst for the Lumberjacks, a program that has made significant strides the past couple of seasons in its quest to join the power brokers of the Big Sky.

For UND, 1-4 in the Big Sky and 2-6 overall, the final three weeks of the season will focus on gaining confidence, and hopefully, some kind of improvement the program can use as a springboard into the 2014 season.

“If you’re a confident athlete and a confident football team, you’ll win games,” Mussman said. “Right now, it’s kind of divided on our team.”

Defensively, UND has made significant improvement and has earned a little swagger. In UND’s past four games, North Dakota has allowed 26.3 points per game — a statistic that read 51.0 ppg in the program’s first three losses of the season.

Defensive coordinator Josh Kotelnicki was on the sideline last week at Portland State, and likely will be on the field again today in the Walkup Skydome.

“I really liked that,” Mussman said. “He’s really fiery and that’s what we need for the defense. He’s right there; there is no pouting on the sideline. He gets after it.

“I really like the way we’re progressing defensively.”

However, UND will be without true freshman safety Cam Kuksa for the rest of the season. He’s been a difference-maker in recent weeks but suffered a neck injury at Portland. UND’s other starting safety, Baylee Carr, is questionable, leaving the position considerably short-handed.

UND’s offense, however, is headed in the opposite direction.

“We’re trying to find any way we can to move the football,” Mussman said. “We have to be productive on first downs. We have to be in manageable positions on third down.”

UND has managed only four offensive touchdowns in its last four games. The struggles of offense have contributed mightily to UND’s minus-16 turnover ratio, which ranks last among the country’s 122 FCS programs.

Regardless, there isn’t much UND can do other than to try and win a game or two in the final three weeks of the season. Today’s game will mark the fifth time UND has faced a nationally ranked team this season.

“We’re going to continue to work and enjoy the last three weeks,” Mussman said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get these guys some wins.”

Notes and quotes

Two of the league’s top all-around players will be on the field today. UND’s Greg Hardin leads the Big Sky in all-purpose yards (1,509) while Bauman is second (1,200) … This is UND’s first trip to Flagstaff since 1985, when the Lumberjacks won 39-10 … UND receiver Jameer Jackson is questionable for the game. He didn’t practice until Thursday … In order to jolt the offense, redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Bartels, who started the season, is expected to see playing time today … UND linebacker Dominique Bennett has had four sacks in UND’s past four games and leads the team with five … Mussman on Bauman: “With all due respect to everyone else in the Big Sky, we think (Bauman) is the best running back in the league. You can’t contain him. He’s going to get his yards. Is he going to hit you for 300 or 150 yards. We’re hoping for the 150-yard range.”

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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