Bobcats ready for high-powered ND

BOZEMAN — Montana State football coach Rob Ash has seen the video game-style numbers. He’s watched North Dakota’s offense turn game film into a highlight reel. But when Ash begins analyzing UND in advance of their visit to Bozeman Saturday, he started away from the spotlight.

“When their offensive line walks onto the field,” Ash said, starting, as football coaches often do, up front, “everyone will notice. They are huge. They’re physical and strong with long arms, and they really protect the quarterback well.” The numbers back Ash’s impression. UND has allow 2.38 sacks, a figure in the middle part of the league rankings, but the team’s 35.5 pass attempts a game is third-most in the 13-team Big Sky.

While Ash and Montana State’s defensive staff try to find a way around North Dakota’s defensive front, most in Bobcat Stadium Saturday will have their eyes trained on UND’s a spectacular array of offensive weapons. That arsenal begins with quarterback Braden Hanson. A transfer from the University of North Carolina, the 6-5 senior signal caller has been limited by injury but completes over 70% of his passes (90-for-126) for over 300 yards per game.

As an extension of the play of Hanson and backup Marcus Hendrickson, receivers Greg Hardin and Jameer Jackson have emerged as threats to score on any play. Hardin is a speedster who caught 333 yards of passes – a Big Sky record and the third-best day every by an FCS receiver – against Montana a week ago. Jackson is a big, physical receiver with a knack for converting in short yardage and goal line situations. The two have combined for 18 touchdowns.

While UND was posting a signature win against the Grizzlies last week, Montana State’s Saturday was significantly quieter. MSU enjoyed an open weekend, which Ash says paid dividends of its own. “Our guys looked fresher and rested in (Sunday’s) practice,” Ash said. “We’ve had this bad taste (from the Eastern Washington loss) in our mouth for a while, and I know our guys will be excited and ready to play again.”

Senior center Shaun Sampson took a more pragmatic approach, declining to call the open week any kind of significant advantage in the big picture. “Every team has a bye week,” said the pivot man who is playing at an all-conference clip. “Last week just happened to be ours.”

Regardless of the role of the bye week, Ash knows Montana State’s offense will play a key role in limiting North Dakota’s point production. “We need to be productive offensively, keep the ball away from them and score points ourselves,” Ash said. “But that’s not going to be easy. They have some excellent defensive players and they’re getting healthy, too.”

That effort, as always, is keyed by quarterback DeNarius McGhee. The Bobcat junior stands second in the league in total offense and third in pass efficiency. The return to health of running back Cody Kirk, slated to start Saturday, also boosts what – at its best – has been a well-balanced Bobcat offense in 2012.

Kickoff is 2 pm Saturday in Bobcat Stadium. The game is aired around the state on Max Media stations (NBC KULR-8 in Billings, ABC stations elsewhere in Montana).

— MSU Sports Information