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Tom Miller / Forum News Service, Published August 26 2013

Short-yardage back up in the air for UND

GRAND FORKS – The University of North Dakota’s passing game took off in 2012, smashing the school’s single-season passing record by more than 500 yards.

With the top four receivers back from that record-setting group this year, the North Dakota air attack is expected to produce again in 2013.

That means the focus throughout fall camp has been on improving a running game that was sometimes lost in the shuffle last year.

Overall in 2012, UND was outrushed by opponents 2,588 yards to 1,467.

UND coach Chris Mussman hopes to see flashes of improvement in the rushing attack when North Dakota hosts Valparaiso – a member of the non-scholarship Pioneer League – on Thursday night in the Alerus Center.

Mussman said no matter the defensive look during fall camp, he made a conscious effort to stick with the run.

“The easy button for us could have been that when we were pressed, to stand up and throw it to one of our four good wide receivers,” Mussman said. “We didn’t do that. We continued to run the ball, even though sometimes it was square-peg-round-hole. What I did like is that we broke more tackles this year than we have in prior falls.”

The dip in the run game is seen in the final statistics for senior running back Jake Miller, who rushed for 942 yards as a sophomore and just 543 as a junior.

“Last year we became one-dimensional,” Miller said. “We preached this fall about taking pressure off our young quarterbacks by running the ball. Our offensive linemen and running backs have done a nice job this fall making sure we can be balanced. I feel confident in our ability right now to run and pass. Hopefully, we can put it all together on Thursday”

Miller and Jer Garman are listed as Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart. Both backs, however, are quick and light. Neither is well-suited for short-yardage situations.

That role the past few seasons belonged to Mitch Sutton, who had 11 touchdowns a year ago. Miller, meanwhile, scored just three touchdowns and all three were from more than 30 yards out.

“That’s tough,” Mussman said. “Mitch was pretty good at that. That’ll be tough to replace.”

The leading candidates for the short-yardage back are sophomore P.J. Sparks and junior Adam Shaugabay.

“That’ll be one of those ongoing things … who are we going to put in with our big personnel and go downhill? It’s yet to be determined, a little like the quarterback race.”

Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald