UND FOOTBALL: UND drops season finale; coaching speculation begins
DAVIS, Calif. _ A season that begain with such promise because of a favorable home schedule, one of the best receiving corps in the pass-happy Big Sky Conference and two highly touted _ but unproven _ redshirt freshmen quarterbacks, ended on a picture-perfect Saturday night at UC Davis.
However, there was hardly anything picturesque about UND's season, which wrapped up with a flat 34-18 loss to scoring-challenged UC Davis before 5,688 fans at Aggie Stadium.
UND finished its second season in the Big Sky with a 2-6 record and 3-8 overall. It was the second time in four seasons that UND finished with a 3-8 mark, leading to more speculation as to the future of sixth-year head coach Chris Mussman, whose record at North Dakota dropped to 31-34.
UND's record also included thrashings by the top four teams in the Big Sky _ Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona. Combined, the four outscored UND by an average of 31 points per game.
North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison made the trip to Davis, but offered no comment when asked about Mussman's future.
Mussman, who led UND to a share of the Great West Conference title in 2011 before the program stepped up to the Big Sky, said his focus is on next year. But he understands the pressure the program faces.
"It's coaching, so things happen," said Mussman. "I can't dwell on that. What's important to me is this football team and that we continue to make strides to get better.
"For me, I'm more concerned about these kids and the coaching staff. We're going to make it work. I truly believe that. We'll work our tails off and continue to try and get this program to where it deserves to be."
UND's defense struggled early in the season. The offense had its share of trouble midway through the season. Against Davis, it was the play of UND's special teams that spelled trouble.
"Special teams were the downfall for us," Mussman said. "We knew their guys were good in the return game. We had a field goal blocked and an extra point blocked."
In a span of 28 seconds in the second quarter, Davis _ led by walk-on Gabe Manzanares' 132 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns _ the Aggies scored a field goal, safety and touchdown.
That turned a 3-3 game into a 15-3 UC Davis lead. UND never recovered.
UC Davis came into the game averaging 15.9 points. But the Aggies' run game and 170 return yards supplemented their struggling offense.
UC Davis made it 18-3 on the third of Brady Stuart's four field goals early in the second quarter. Adam Shaugabay's 3-yard TD run cut UC Davis' lead to 18-9 at the half.
Neither team did much in the third quarter and the Aggies _ who had 429 yards of offense _ took 24-9 lead on Manzanares' 15-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter.
"It was a hard-fought game," said UND senior linebacker Garrison Goodman. "We never quit once. That's how it was all season."
UND again relied on the pass, as its run game became nearly extinct in the final weeks of the season. Ryan Bartels and Joe Mollberg combined for 368 passing yards. The North Dakota offense, which played without leading rusher Jake Miller, managed only 60 rushing yards _ 49 from P.J. Sparks.
UND loses 17 seniors from this season's team. Many spent a few extra minutes on the Aggie Stadium turf, soaking in their last memories of UND football.
"When I look back on my career, it won't be all about wins and losses," said Goodman. As seniors, our legacy here is the building blocks. No, we didn't get all the wins we could have. But I think we instilled a dynamic in this team that we can build on."
Goodman's career began just as UND was making the move to Division I, an up-and-down transition that has made for some interesting times.
"This season was really frustrating," said UND All-America receiver Greg Hardin, who caught 11 passes for 179 yards and also set the single-season UND record for all-purpose yards. "We never came together as a team but we always worked our butts off. We tried our best. It just didn't work out."