Chris Mussman took offensive line coach Rod Carey’s decision to leave North Dakota after three years to coach the talent-rich line at Northern Illinois as a blow to the program.
But it was also a chance for Mussman to get back to his roots.
The Fighting Sioux head coach was a former offensive lineman himself at Iowa State, where he was a team captain in 1990. Mussman worked his way up the coaching ladder as an offensive line coach at Minnesota State-Mankato and joined North Dakota in the same capacity in 1999.
So, when Carey left last offseason, Mussman took over the Fighting Sioux offensive line.
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“Really I did it for my own sanity more than anything else,” Mussman said. “I could take that head coach hat off and just go back and be a coach. “It is fun to have a position group again My attitude’s different. There’s more bounce in my step.”
And with Cal Poly (3-3, 1-0 Great West Conference) visiting for an 11 a.m. game today without star cornerback Asa Jackson, the North Dakota offense has more pep to it.
The 20th-ranked Fighting Sioux (4-2, 1-0 Great West) tout the conference’s leading rusher and have Grand Forks buzzing over what could be the program’s most successful season at the FCS level since moving up from Division II for 2008.
Mussman’s involvement with the line has given North Dakota a smashmouth makeover, and the Fighting Sioux are averaging nearly 185 rushing yards per game.
“To coach the O-line, you have to be extremely involved in the offense,” Mussman said. “We found some things that didn’t mesh, and now you can see the benefit of that. Maybe our backs were too deep in the pistol for how we were blocking. Subtle little things you do.”
Jake Miller averages 115.8 yards per game on the ground and has 12 touchdowns. His 695 rushing yards lead the Great West, and the team also gets back former conference rookie of the year Mitch Sutton this week after he missed the past three games with a hamstring injury.
Whoever handles the ball, the Mustangs expect it to be a challenge.
“They’ve gotten their yards everywhere inside and outside to be honest,” Cal Poly junior middle linebacker Kennith Jackson said. “There really is no predominant spot. They’ve done a really good job of blocking. Their linemen have been getting up to their backers. So, that’s something we’ve been trying to emphasize, getting off and making sure we’re getting to the line before they’re getting to us.
“If we can control the line of scrimmage, we should be able to handle the running attack and have our linebackers come down and fill in where they need to fit.”
Cal Poly will have to do it without Jackson, who ranks third on the team in tackles but suffered a broken bone in his foot on a kickoff return last week and did not make the trip after not practicing the entire week.
In the same conference for the past three years, the Mustangs and Fighting Sioux have only played each other three times.
North Dakota upset Cal Poly in 2009, handing the Mustangs a 31-17 defeat that essentially killed their playoff hopes in head coach Tim Walsh’s first season.
Last season, Cal Poly escaped with a 22-21 home victory over the Fighting Sioux.
North Dakota isn’t as familiar a foe as traditional rivals like Montana and UC Davis, but the Fighting Sioux could be the favorite to win the Great West at this point.
“It’s become a pretty big game,” Walsh said. “They have a great football tradition, too. It’s just that most of it’s at Division II. Just like Cal Poly 15 years ago, when Cal Poly decided to go FCS. They’ve done a great job of getting themselves back into the Top 25 in a short amount of time, and they’re a team and a program that feels it can compete at a national level.”
Two of North Dakota’s victories have come over an NAIA school and one in its first year transitioning from NAIA to Division II, but the Fighting Sioux were also leading Fresno State in the fourth quarter of a 27-22 loss to the Bulldogs. They were also the first to upend defending Great West champion Southern Utah this season.
“They gave Fresno more than a scare and they beat Southern Utah in Southern Utah, which is not an easy thing to do,” Walsh said. “It’s a solid football team — not a lot of flaws and not a lot of stuff to them other than they play great football.”