GRAND FORKS, N.D. – It’s Homecoming weekend here in the heartland, with all the trappings: alumni events, dinners, and the big game this weekend against … Vermont.
That happened Friday night at the Ralph Engelstad Arena drew 12,000 for North Dakota’s season-opening hockey match with the Vermont Catamounts.
Whatever a Catamount is, it’s one nickname more than what North Dakota has right now, which is another story.
A mile away, at the empty Alerus Center, the Eastern Washington football team was holding its walkthrough for today’s Big Sky Conference game against UND.
The Alerus will get several thousand fans for today’s game, which already means more to sixth-ranked Eastern than it will to a disappointing North Dakota team that is inconsistent on offense and struggling mightily on defense. That’s partly due to a tough schedule that’s left UND 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Sky, as Eagle coach Beau Baldwin points out.
The Eagles, 3-2 and coming off an easy win last week in their conference opener against Weber State, hope to keep the momentum going today with a balanced offense and a defense that is ready to unleash its pass rush.
The Eagles have just six sacks on the year, mostly because several opponents have played a zone read offense that according to defensive coordinator John Graham hasn’t allowed his linemen “to pin their ears back and go.”
“Hopefully this is a week where we can get them going and they can get after it,” Graham said.
That’s especially important against UND, which passes first and gets 267 yards a game through the air and just 127 on the ground.
Once UND gets to the red zone, it usually goes the rest of the way, converting 16 of 17 chances inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. If and when that happens, Graham hopes his unit “understands what they’re trying to do down there.”
“It’s understanding some of the specific route combinations they like to go to, certain sets,” Graham said.
For Baldwin, it’s as much attiitude as technique. “It doesn’t matter what it took for a team to get to that point, it’s what are we going to do going forward,” Baldwin said.
Going forward may be easier after what’s already happened; the Eagles have faced Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion – the top rated passer in FBS – as well as the Tim Flanders of Sam Houston State, the top running back in FCS, plus a talented Toledo team.
“It’s great for the whole team, and the defense, to play the schedule we’ve played and put yourself on the stage with the best,” Baldwin said. “Even if things don’t always go the way you want them to, you know what it takes to work toward being a good, and even great, defense later in the season,” Baldwin said.
On the other side of the ball, Eastern will face a North Dakota defense that giving up 442 yards a game – third from the bottom of the Sky – and allowing opponents to convert a whopping 47 percent of their third-downs. UND also is dead last in the conference in turnover margin at minus 1.4 per game.
Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams said Friday before the walkthrough that he’d never played in a dome. “It’s warm in here, so I better hydrate,” said the Big Sky’s top-rated passer, who suffered from cramping in the season-opening win at Oregon State.