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Montana coach says UND corners make defense the best he's seen this year

Deion Harris, who returned three interceptions for touchdowns in 2016, has started to return to form in 2018 after missing all of 2017. UND athletics file photo.

Earlier this week, Montana football coach Bobby Hauck labeled UND's defense as the best his program will face so far this season.

Pressed further, Hauck said UND's cornerbacks make the Fighting Hawks' defense click.

UND's veteran corners Evan Holm and Deion Harris will be tested again when the Fighting Hawks face Montana on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Alerus Center.

Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed, a dual-threat UNLV transfer, is No. 13 in the country in passing yards with 1,396.

The Griz have torched the UND secondary two of the past three years in blowout wins in Missoula, throwing for 423 yards last year and throwing for 321 yards and six touchdowns in 2015.

The Fighting Hawks' secondary was banged up a season ago—with Harris missing the entire season with an Achilles injury and Holm only starting four games due to an injury.

This year, Harris has started to return to form. As a junior, the 6-foot-3 Harris was an All-American and had five interceptions including three that were returned for a touchdown.

With Harris' reputation well-established, Holm has often been targeted. He's withstood the test, as he has six pass breakups on the year.

Against Sam Houston State, Holm knocked away three consecutive passes in the red zone in a 1-on-1 scenario with Bearkat wide receiver Nathan Stewart, a 2017 All-American.

Against Northern Colorado, Holm had a first-quarter deflection of a deep ball intended for Bears speedster Alex Wesley.

It's a well-tested secondary already in 2018. Stewart, Wesley and Idaho State's Mitch Gueller all rank in the top 25 in FCS receiving yards.

Wesley, who rates No. 2 in the country, was held to two catches for 50 yards against UND—the only time he's been held under 97 receiving yards all season.

"The thing that sticks out the most is they're really good at corner," Hauck said of UND. "That allows them to do the other stuff they like to do. (The cornerbacks) will challenge you, and they're hard to beat. When you have that ability, it opens up additional windows."

Just looking at passing yards allowed, UND's numbers aren't great. The Fighting Hawks rank No. 98 nationally by allowing 263 passing yards per game.

However, the ability of Harris and Holm to hold up often in man coverage allows UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt to be creative.

"It gives you freedom to do other things, whether that's blitzing or manipulating underneath coverage," UND cornerbacks coach Travis Stepps said. "It gives you more options. When you have to spend more than one guy on a receiver, it limits the other things you can do. It helps to have corners who can win one-on-one matchups."

The statistics where this line of thinking pop for UND are in team sacks and tackles for loss.

The Fighting Hawks are No. 3 in the country in sacks at 4.2 per game, behind only Penn and Maine.

In terms of tackles for loss, UND is No. 5 in the country at 8.8 per game.

"You have to be able to run into the blitz and hit passes over the top of it," Hauck said. "They're going to give us opportunities for big plays, at least I hope. Whether we seize those might define the game."

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department since 2004. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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