Braden Hanson’s arrival in Grand Forks, N.D., caused a stir throughout the rest of the Big Sky Conference. But North Dakota’s brand new weapon only recently got to show off his firepower.
Hanson transferred to UND from the University of North Carolina. The 6-foot-5 southpaw was the North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior at Latin High School in Charlotte. He threw for 5,623 yards and 81 touchdowns in leading Latin to back-to-back state titles and he was an Under Armour prep All-America.
But playing time was fleeting in Chapel Hill. When Hanson elected to transfer to UND — a Big Sky newcomer that shared the Great West title and almost made the playoffs with an 8-3 record in 2011 — the rest of the league took notice.
But in UND’s season-opening 66-0 win over the South Dakota School of Mines, Hanson broke his fibula. Without their towering gunslinger, UND more than made due, as Marcus Hendrickson threw 15 touchdown passes in relief.
Last week against Montana, Hanson started and finished his first game in green and white. The results were astronomical. Hanson completed a school-record 42 passes for a Big Sky Conference record 660 yards and five touchdowns. Twelve of his passes went to junior wide receiver Greg Hardin for a whopping 333 yards, also a league record. Hardin’s 32-yard touchdown with 12 seconds to play (his third of the afternoon) lifted UND to a 40-34 win over the Grizzlies.
“It was a product of everyone on offense doing their job,” Hanson said Tuesday. “We knew Montana had a great defense, a great front seven and we knew we’d have to throw the ball and take advantage of our great wide receivers. The offensive line did a great job. They were blitzing quite a bit and we just wanted to make them pay with the passing game.”
“We knew he was chucking it around a little bit, we knew he had some yards and had hit some big plays, but at the end of the day, I didn’t think he’d throw up 660-plus yards, or whatever it was,” added UND head coach Chris Mussman. “That’s the way we could move the ball. That goes to Montana because their front seven is good and their d-line is very good. It was tough sledding running the football for us so we went to a different type of attack early on.”
Although Hardin’s numbers were eye-popping, he wasn’t alone. Blair Thompson caught a career-high 13 passes for 152 yards and Jameer Jackson hauled in eight more Hanson tosses for 124 yards.
“You have to go with what works and we were throwing the ball pretty well,” Mussman said. “Greg was in a different zone. When he is there, we just have to ride him. That opens up the other guys, too. I mean, Blair Thompson had a career day. Jameer Jackson continues to be solid for us as a freshman. So it wasn’t just one guy, even though Greg’s numbers were very impressive. We were spreading the ball.”
The ball was certainly spread, but Mussman and Hanson each acknowledged Hardin’s performance was on another level.
“He is so explosive and he has great hands and he is one of those guys who is just a gamer,” Hanson said. “He turns it on and when that ball is in the air, he goes up and gets it. He has that mindset when the ball is in the air that it belongs to him.”
North Dakota continues its powerhouse schedule — UND’s three FCS losses have come to teams with a combine 19-2 record — Saturday with a trip to Bozeman to take on No. 4 Montana State. How do the Bobcats hope to slow down an offensive attack operating at such a high level?
“I don’t know,” said Montana State head coach Rob Ash. “They have excellent receivers, a big line, the quarterback is sensational. We have to do our thing. We have to try to get to the quarterback, play well in pass coverage and stop the running game too. If you get one-dimensional and concentrate on the pass, then they will kill you with the running game.
“Our defense is tough. (Defensive coordinator) Jamie Marshall does an excellent job with those guys and we are playing well, but we’ve never faced someone who just threw for 660 yards or a receiver who’s gone for 330 yards. Those are just staggering numbers. It makes us concerned for the matchup.”
When asked if UND is the best offense Montana State has faced this season, Marshall said “I think so”. That’s a heavy statement coming from a coach who’s already game planned for the explosive attacks of Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Washington.
Montana blitzed Hanson on 34 of his 61 passing attempts. Against a four-man rush, Hanson was 15-for-27 for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Against six and seven-man rushes, Hanson was 8-for-12 for 79 yards and two scores. When the Griz blitzed one linebacker, Hanson’s numbers were nearly perfect: 18-for-21 for 252 yards and a touchdown.
Marshall said he is confident in MSU’s ability to pressure Hanson without having to blitz.
“We believe in our base, we believe in fundamental football, we don’t feel like we have to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback,” Marshall said. “We have really good defensive linemen and good cover guys, so we think if we can buy those guys some time up front, we can get there just as fast as blitzing.”
Montana State had a bye last week, meaning the Bobcats had ample time to prepare to slow down UND’s explosive attack. Marshall said the Bobcats’ defensive identity has not and will not change.
“Keeping our base philosophy allows the players to play fast,” Marshall said. “If we showed up on Monday or Tuesday and we revamped our defense completely, the players would second-guess what we are doing as a coaching staff. Our players believe in it, our coaches believe in it, I believe in it and it’s worked so far.”