Throughout the summer, the UNDSports.com staff will take a deeper look into the 2012 opponents for the North Dakota football team as it embarks on its first season in the Big Sky Conference.After opening the season with a trio of non-conference games, the University of North Dakota football team will get its first official taste of Big Sky Conference play on Saturday, Sept. 22 at Sacramento State. The Hornets will be the initial league opponent in what will be UND's third conference affiliation during its gridiron history.
Sacramento State is coming off a roller coaster of a 2011 season. The senior-laden Hornets sent shockwaves through the college football landscape in early September, posting a 29-28 overtime win at Oregon State. The victory moved the team all the way up to No. 12 in the national rankings, but a 35-14 loss to Great West member Southern Utah the next week brought Sac State back to reality.
The Hornets went just 3-7 after their upset over the Beavers, but they did manage to hand Montana its only loss in Big Sky play on the final Saturday of September, defeating the Grizzlies 42-28. Their other Big Sky victories were a 14-0 win over a winless Northern Colorado club and a 24-9 victory over a two-win Idaho State team. Sac State were trying to build off the momentum of a 5-3 finish in Big Sky play in 2010.
Head coach Marshall Sperbeck is entering his sixth season at the helm of the Hornets' program. An offensive-minded coach, Sperbeck had three different quarterbacks attempt 50 or more passes during the 2011 season. Senior Jeff Fleming did most of the work (appeared in seven games) as he completed 54.4 percent of his passes for 1,138 yards and seven touchdowns before seeing his final collegiate season cut short by an injury. The only signal caller back among that trio in 2012 is sophomore Garrett Safron, who played in five games. Safron only completed 42.1 percent of his passes, but did not throw an interception in 57 attempts and also added 298 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
Sperbeck and the Hornets will also have to replace their top running back (Bryant Hilliard; 665 yards, 7 TDs) and top receiver (Brandyn Reed; 26 rec., 542 yards, 6 TDs) going into the 2012 season.
Defensively, Sac State also has to replace one of its key figures in first-team All-American Zack Nash, who posted 10.5 sacks and 52 tackles in 2011. The unit allowed 27.4 ppg and forced 18 turnovers. Junior linebacker Todd Davis is back to the anchor that side of the ball, however, after registering a team-high 96 tackles as a sophomore.
History of Series
UND and Sac State have met only once, dating back to a 31-0 North Dakota win on Sept. 15, 1979 in Grand Forks.
According to the Grand Forks Herald recap, UND "used overpowering defense and opportunistic offense" in front of 13,200 for the Potato Bowl USA win.
UND's rushing game dominated the day, as North Dakota picked up 295 yards on 53 carries by nine different rushers. Milson Jones led the way with 99 yards on 16 carries. Dave Jensen rushed for 82 yards on seven carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Tom Biolo went 9-for-20 through the air for 91 yards and a score.
Did You Know?
UND won its first North Central Conference game with a 7-0 victory over South Dakota on Oct. 14, 1922. The Green and White opened its Division I transition era as a member of the Great West Conference. UND lost its initial game in GWC play, falling 34-21 at UC Davis on Oct. 25, 2009. The Aggies will make the move to the Big Sky Conference in 2012 along with UND, Cal Poly and Southern Utah.
UND and Sacramento State had three common opponents on their respective 2011 schedules. UND went 3-0 on the road against Southern Utah, UC Davis and Northern Colorado, while the Hornets went just 1-2 against that trio. Both teams beat the Bears, while the Hornets went 0-2 against Great West foes.
Sacramento State and UC Davis are separated by only about 15 miles and the two teams play annually in what is billed as the "Causeway Classic". The two teams will square off this season as conference foes in what will be the 59th annual meeting between the two schools.