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Wayne Nelson / Forum Communications Co., Published November 13 2012

UND hopes to wrap up first Big Sky season with a victory

GRAND FORKS – The forecast for Greeley, Colo., on Saturday calls for sunny skies, a high temperature of 54 degrees and no snow.

That’s quite a turnaround from the University of North Dakota’s trip to Northern Colorado last season

“Last year, we were shoveling snow off their sideline,” recalled UND offensive coordinator Greg Breitbach. “We even broke one of their shovels.”

The forecast is expected to be perfect for throwing the football at Nottingham Field. And UND has thrown the ball better this season than during any other year of the program’s 118-year history.

UND is on pace to attempt more passes than rushes this season. If UND’s pass first, run later philosophy holds against Northern Colorado, it will be the first time in the program’s existence that the football will have been in the air more than it was on the ground.

“Why not now?” asked UND quarterback Braden Hanson, the North Carolina transfer who has played a big role in the team’s passing game this season.

UND already has set single-season records for passing yardage (2,886) and passing touchdowns (27) – likely a taste of the type of football it takes to compete in the wide-open Big Sky Conference.

But the mission against Northern Colorado is winning, not throwing.

A win would end UND’s first season in the Big Sky at 4-4 and it would leave the program with a 6-5 overall record in its initial year of full-Division I FCS eligibility.

“We’re treating this a little bit like a bowl game,” Breitbach said. “Finishing .500 in the Big Sky is a pretty big step for us.”

The four Big Sky teams – Montana State, Eastern Washington, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona – that have defeated UND are a combined 33-7. Three of the four are expected to qualify for the FCS playoffs.

And UND now catches a Northern Colorado team that is finishing the season with a flurry. The Bears, a former North Central Conference rival, were winless last season but are 4-6 this season – winning three of their last four.

UND has had confidence in its passing game this season as well. UND ranks second in Big Sky passing, averaging 288.6 yards per game.

With one year in the Big Sky almost in the books, it appears UND won’t be abandoning its offensive philosophy any time soon.

“There are really good skill players in the Big Sky,” Breitbach said. “Every team has a running back that can take it the distance. Every team has a play-making receiver. You just don’t get any easy games week in and week out. That has a tendency to wear on teams. Those teams that are the deepest usually wind up on top and playing in December.

Nelson writes for the Grand Forks Herald