Bobcats look to slow explosive ND ground game

BOZEMAN — It is only appropriate that Montana State’s game at North Dakota Saturday falls on Halloween, given the adjective most frequently applied to North Dakota running back John Santiago.

Game notes

“He’s scary,” Bobcat coach Rob Ash summarized, citing the big-play element Santiago brings to the UND offense, and defensive coordinator said largely the same thing. The numbers back that up. The true freshman leads the league in rushing at 150.6 yards per conference game, more than 25 yards a game more than his next back in line. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of North Dakota’s eight games.

Santiago and UND, 4-4 on the season and 2-3 in Big Sky play, face a 4-3 Montana State squad that is 2-2 against conference opponents. Kickoff is at 12:05 pm MT in the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Ash says Santiago’s impact is as evident as it has been immediate. “Their offense has an explosive element it didn’t have before” in Santiago, he said. “He can hit a big play any time he touches the ball.”

Santiago’s presence has helped the 4-4 Green and White overcome an injury plague that has affected the entire squad, but most pointedly on offense. Quarterback Keaton Studsrud missed the last two games with a leg injury after engineering an efficient UND offense to a 4-1 record in games which he started and finished. He has thrown for 745 yards with a 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and has also rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns.

As big a boost as the UND offense has proven this season, that program hangs its hat on defense. That has been the case since head coach Bubba Schweigert arrived a year-and-a-half ago. UND allows a Big Sky-best 82.1 yards a game on the ground, and is third in the league in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.

“They’re really good at using blitzes and pressures to get you out of drives quickly,” Ash said. Linebacker Will Ratelle’s 80 tackles leads the team, and his nine tackles-for-loss stands 10th in the conference. Cornerback Deion Harris’ 11 passes defended is third in the Big Sky.

While Ash likes the components that comprise the North Dakota squad, he is more impressed with the team’s totality. “They really have a good idea of what they want to do,” Ash said. “Their offense and defense match each other perfectly. They like knocking teams out of drives early, then playing keepaway with the offense. It’s a very effective philosophy, and they execute it extremely well.”

Montana State’s offense has done more than it share in a season marked by inconsistency. The Cats lead the Big Sky in scoring offense (45.9 points a game) and rank second in total offense (539.7 yards a game). MSU rushes for 224.0 yards a game, while UND holds down the league’s top spot in rushing defense (82.4 yards a game).

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to figure out the Bobcats’ soft spot. The Cats allow 471.3 yards and 32.1 points a game, but away from 618 yards and 54 points a game away from Bobcat Stadium. Opponents complete 79.3% of their passes in their home stadiums against MSU’s defense, and average 7.0 yards per rush attempt.

The numbers, appropriate for posting in any haunted house, do not escape Ash’s notice. “We’ve got to play better defense on the road,” he said, noting that the team’s average of 44.3 points in road games “should be enough to win. We have to get the ball back for the offense.”

Ash hopes the different personnel alignment debuted last week against East Tennessee State spurs continued improveme and Ro nt, after MSU held the Buccaneers to just seven points last week, a season’s best mark for the Bobcat defense. Jessie Clark starts again at the Bandit position, while Tyrone Fa’anono bert Wilcox split time at End. That allows the move of Zach Hutchins to the Will linebacker spot, and gives him the ability to convert his athleticism into playmaking.

“That’s why we made those changes,” Ash said. “We’re working to get better in the three areas a team can control – scheme, personnel, and technique. This is an important game against a very strong opponent, and we’re excited for the game.”

— MSU Sports Information

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