MISSOULA — In an effort to contain North Dakota senior receiver Greg Hardin, Montana coach Mick Delaney is mulling a new approach.
“I think we better back up another four or five yards so he doesn’t run right by us,” joked the coach.
“He had more yards in our game last year than most guys have in a career. And that’s not just the University Montana. He’s done that to most every team he’s played.”
Hardin, a preseason All-American whose team plays host to the Grizzlies in the Alerus Center, is going to have a hard time topping last year’s monster performance in a 40-34 win over the Griz. He piled up a Big Sky Conference single-game record 333 receiving yards on 12 catches, three of which went for touchdowns.
If you think Montana has forgotten, think again.
“I remember it was a horror story,” Delaney said. “Any time you give up 600 (total) yards in passing or whatever, it’s a bad deal. They just had everything going that particular day as far as the pass goes.
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“They’re doing the same thing now. They just have a tremendous group of skill guys. Greg Hardin deserves every bit of accolades he gets because he’s a dynamic player. Between him and three or four other receivers in that stable and a good big offensive line that pass blocks real well, we’re going to have to be real sound on defense.”
The 5-foot-11 Hardin enters the game as the FCS leader in 2013 receiving yards with 370 on 12 receptions. He averages a whopping 30.8 yards per catch and is just as deadly returning kickoffs, with a 90-yarder in North Dakota’s opener.
“The thing Greg possesses as a receiver is when the ball is in the air – when you put him on a clock he’s going to be fast but you’re not going to go wow, he’s that fast –but when the ball is in the air nobody tracks it like Greg does,” UND coach Chris Mussman said. “He’s got that different gear.
“And he’s great with his body. He made a catch last week where at the last minute he moved over and shifted his body. He knew he had to adjust and at the last minute he did. It’s just little skills like that making him special. He’s got a game tempo we haven’t see around here.”
A dozen NFL scouts have attended UND practices to watch Hardin. And just as scary, at least from Montana’s perspective, is that the Nebraska native doesn’t even lead NoDak in receptions. That honor belongs to 6-foot-4 sophomore Kenny Golladay, who has 13 for 175 yards and a 64-yard punt return to his credit.
The problem for NoDak (1-1) has been finding a reliable quarterback to take advantage of a gifted receiver corps. Redshirt freshmen Ryan Bartels and Joe Mollberg have each worked a half in the first two games.
Both have had ups and downs. Last week the duo was responsible for three costly turnovers and had a major hand in North Dakota’s 10 penalties for 107 yards. Mussman believes those turnovers were the difference in a 35-28 home loss to No. 6 South Dakota State.
“We have to live with those mistakes with those redshirt freshmen,” the coach said. “We’re asking them to play like fourth-year guys instead of second-year guys and that’s part of our growing pains right now.
“In an ideal world you’d like to name one and you’d like to have one guy really step up and separate himself. But the reality is they’ve each played one game collectively and both have been good and bad. It’s still a work in progress for us.”
For all of their success throwing the football – they average over 360 passing yards per game – the Green and White will still try to establish the run in their pro-style offense. Running back Jake Miller has 139 yards and three touchdowns in two games.
He and the rest of the NoDak seniors would like nothing better than to score a signature win over a highly-ranked Division I opponent in front of a home crowd in excess of 10,000 fans.
“We’re going to have to make sure we’re sharp if we want to do some things offensively against Montana,” Miller said. “Hopefully come Saturday we can find some chinks in their armor we can attack. It would be big for us to find a way to pull off a victory.”
For that to happen NoDak must also find a way to stop Montana’s versatile offense. The Griz were close to perfect with their balance against Appalachian State on Aug. 31, collecting 251 yards passing and 246 rushing in a 30-6 victory.
The Green and White counter with a defense that ranks third in the Big Sky, allowing 314.5 yards per game. North Dakota’s top priority will be stopping the run, which has been an Achilles’ heel for the unit.
“Montana has a couple of great running backs and a big offensive line,” noted NoDak junior strong safety Baylee Carr. “But we have to worry about us and then come Saturday just play ball.”
Notes: To reach the 3,000-yard plateau for his career, Hardin needs just 200 more receiving yards ... The last time the Grizzlies won at North Dakota was 1971 ... UND is 67-14 in 12 seasons at the Alerus Center, including a 10-0 mark in the Division II playoffs ... NoDak has new offensive and defensive coordinators this season. Linebackers coach Josh Kotelnicki was elevated to defensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Luke Schleusner took the reins as offensive coordinator ... Under Mussman, UND has averaged 39.4 points per game in 21 home wins ... Redshirt freshman RB Kodee Varner is the only Montana native on the UND roster. He hails from Baker ... Despite neighboring the Peace Garden State, UM does not have a native North Dakota player on its roster.
Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.