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UND run game against Montana linebackers pits strength on strength

When opposing coaches are asked about UND, the conversation typically starts with running back John Santiago. "Seems like this guy's an eighth-year senior," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. When opposing coaches are asked about Montana, the conver...

University of North Dakota running back John Santiago splits a pair of Idaho State defenders during a 2015 game in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service file photo
UND's John Santiago splits a pair of Idaho State defenders in the first half of a 2015 game at the Alerus Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald.
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When opposing coaches are asked about UND, the conversation typically starts with running back John Santiago.

"Seems like this guy's an eighth-year senior," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.

When opposing coaches are asked about Montana, the conversation typically starts with linebackers Dante Olson and Josh Buss.

"They've really controlled the field," UND offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph said.

When the Fighting Hawks (3-2) meet the No. 22 Grizzlies (4-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Alerus Center, UND's rushing attack and Montana's linebackers will square off as strength on strength.

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The Fighting Hawks have the No. 14 rushing offense in the country with 1,258 yards. It's a three-headed attack with the speedy Santiago and power backs Brady Oliveira and James Johannesson.

In UND's last game, a 38-13 victory over Northern Colorado, the Hawks ran for 351 yards despite Santiago sitting out with an injury.

Without Santiago, Oliveira turned in his 10th career 100-yard rushing performance. The senior rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Johannesson also had his breakout performance against the Bears. The transfer from the Minnesota Gophers, a 6-foot-1, 250-pound junior, carried 22 times for 141 yards.

Coming off a bye week, UND expects Santiago to play against the Griz. Santiago currently ranks No. 3 all-time at UND with 3,447 career yards.

That rushing attack will see a lot of Olson and Buss. Olson leads the country-by 27 tackles-with 98 stops this season. He averages 16.3 per game. To put in perspective, UND's leading tackler-Noah Larson-has 28 tackles on the year.

"Our challenge is getting a hat on them and then staying locked in and forcing those guys to take on blocks on a regular basis," Rudolph said. "Our big task is to get someone up to those guys so they can't roam unabated."

In Montana's loss at home to Portland State last week, Olson had 19 tackles, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

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Earlier this year in a win at Cal Poly, Olson had 24 tackles.

The Griz often show a defensive look with one linebacker positioned like a defensive lineman, with Buss and Olson spanning the second layer of the field alone.

"They're unique," said Rudolph, who gave a lot of credit to Montana's defensive linemen for keeping blockers off the linebackers. "It's not something you see everyday. The only thing you can count on is you'll see twists and slants and blitzes. They'll come from different angles. Every front that has been dreamed up, you'll see it Saturday."

Montana's rush defense ranks in the middle of the pack in the FCS, giving up 178.2 yards per game.

UND's offensive line is expected to receive a boost this week with the return from injury of true freshman tackle Matt Waletzko. He's expected to rotate with right tackle Nathan Nguon, who is still working into shape following an injury of his own last spring.

"I think we've made strides there," Rudolph said of his offensive line. "The thing we've done a good job is getting hats on hats in the front seven, they you try to make the safeties tackle. When you do that, the play-action game moves around better."

Montana at UND

When: Today, 1 p.m.

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Where: Alerus Center

TV/Radio: MidcoSN, 96.1 FM

Records: UND 3-2; No. 22 Montana 4-2

Of note: Montana has won the past four games between the teams.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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