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Montana vs. North Dakota

The following was written by former Gazette sports employee Phil Sites from the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D., where Montana blew out North Dakota 55-17. Be sure to check out Phil's photo gallery from the game here.

Don’t call Grand Forks, N.D. a football town, at least not yet …

Hockey still comes first and foremost around these parts, I would know -- I’ve been to a handful of games at the legendary Ralph Englestad Arena. A newcomer could be forgiven for mistaking “The Ralph” for an NHL facility -- it’s just that good. What I was most interested in this trip was to see how the UND faithful backed their football team.

Football may still be a distant second here, but as far as Big Sky Conference production values go, the “former” Sioux still put on a good show. I was impressed with the sprawling Alerus Center campus (which sits adjacent to a restaurant, hotel and waterpark), and feel that North Dakota football -- despite being relatively new to D-I theatrics -- can be proud of their home turf. The stadium itself is relatively modern, if a tad industrial. The video board belts out the Big Sky Conference promotional videos and seeing the Big Sky logo plastered all over the field is a bit odd -- especially when I’ve grown to associate the school’s best athletic moments with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. I can’t help but think, though, that North Dakota is trying really hard to catch up in sports like football and have a well-rounded athletic program to complement the more famous hockey team.

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There is still some work that needs to be done with the product on the field, though. North Dakota struggled mightily against a Montana Grizzlies team bent on revenge after last year’s dramatic 40-34 upset in Grand Forks. While North Dakota more than held their own against a tough South Dakota State squad last week, the Sioux had no answer for anyone named Jordan on Montana. Jordan Johnson could do no wrong in the air, completing 15-of-19 for 354 and five touchdowns while Jordan Canada grinded out 104 yards on 14 touches. The Griz shut down wideout Greg Hardin, who torched Montana to the tune of a Big Sky record 333 yards last year. Hardin had a comparably miniscule 46 yards as the Montana defense gave quarterback Joe Mollberg very little time to read the field.

Still, if the talent catches up for North Dakota, there is reason for the school to assimilate nicely into the Big Sky. One hour south, in Fargo, there is a campus that is being treated to a visit by the ESPN College GameDay crew. The North Dakota State Bison have jumped from D-II to the upper echelon of the Football Championship Subdivision in nearly no time at all. Why couldn’t the same happen for North Dakota? They’ve drank the Championship elixir before with their hockey program, so they know the formula for producing results. A strong North Dakota program could only be a boon for the Big Sky going forward.

I was relatively impressed with the size of the Griz-backing crowd as Grand Forks doesn’t make the easiest road trip from Missoula (despite the two states bordering each other that is one relatively epic drive). Still, I expected more. The turnout in Boone, N.C. and Knoxville, Tenn. the previous two seasons was impressive, considering the distance. I’m anxious to see how the Bobcat fans travel, you know I’ll be eyeing them close next week. I’ll be heading down to Nacogdoches, Texas for their clash with Stephen F. Austin and their first real D-I test without DeNarius McGhee. See you then!

Phil Sites is a former Gazette Sports staffer and Cat-Griz Insider contributor. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area freelancing, traveling and working on his blog, www.weekendroady.com.

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