North Dakota has already reaped several paramount rewards in recent weeks. The Fighting Hawks scored 28 points to rally for a 38-31 win over Northern Arizona on November 12 to sew up an undefeated Big Sky Conference season. The 8-0 record helped UND share its first ever Big Sky title. It also punched a ticket to the Division I playoffs for the first time since moving up from Division II in 2008.
The regular-season bye week followed, forcing UND to sit and watch as many other teams from around the country played rivalry games with playoff seeding on the line. Several games went in North Dakota’s favor, namely Richmond dropping its season finale to William & Mary, Central Arkansas losing to top-ranked Sam Houston State and Chattanooga losing for the second straight week, this time to FBS No. 1 Alabama. All three of those losses enabled the co-Big Sky champions from UND to earn the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, providing a second straight bye week.
“It’s really different than going from 11 weeks straight of playing, preparing every week for someone new,” UND senior captain tight end Luke Mathewson said. “To not have that was a stress reliever. It really gives you the opportunity to think about what we can get better at.”
On Saturday, North Dakota will play for the first time in 21 days against a Richmond Spiders squad fresh off a 39-10 drubbing of North Carolina A&T in the first round of the FCS playoffs. For UND, it is a new horizon, the first appearance in a Division I postseason, the first D-I home game in program history, the first time the team has taken the field in weeks. For Richmond, Saturday’s game at the Alerus Center marks the 25th playoff game in its storied history as the Spiders gun for their sixth appearance in the quarterfinals since 2005.
“It will be a big day for our football program Saturday,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert, the 2016 Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, said on Wednesday. “We know we have a tremendous challenge in front of us. We have a team that has a rich playoff history, won in their first round game in convincing fashion.”
Richmond tore threw the FCS playoffs in 2008, upsetting three-time defending national champion Appalachian State in the quarterfinals, knocking off No. 3 seed Northern Iowa in the semifinals and posting a 24-7 win over No. 4 Montana in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since Danny Rocco took over as the head coach in 2012, Richmond has qualified for the FCS playoffs for three straight years, losing to Coastal Carolina in the second round in 2014 and running to the semifinals before losing to eventual North Dakota State in 2015.
“It’s a different situation for us and we are sharing that with our guys that we have to prepare well because it’s a football game,” Schweigert said. “We really want to focus on our preparation. When we get to 5 o’clock Central time on Saturday, we have to be at the right emotional level to compete at a high level. We know they are going to come in here with a lot of energy and playoff experience.”
This year’s Spiders began the year with a commanding 37-20 win over Virginia in Charlottesville. Richmond lost in Week 3 to Stony Brook 42-14 (the one common opponent the Spiders share with UND) before ripping off five straight wins, including a 36-30 win over No. 16 Albany in triple overtime and a 23-0 win over No. 11 Villanova the following week.
Richmond (9-3) lost two of three down the stretch, including a 47-43 loss to fourth-seeded James Madison and a 34-13 loss to William & Mary. In the season finale in Williamsburg, Virginia, Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta, a second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick, tore his ACL and was lost for the season.
At the time of the injury, Richmond held a 13-6 lead over the Tribe in the first half. William & Mary went on to score 28 unanswered points as the Spiders’ passing game became completely negated. Reid Chenault and Jake Clise combine to complete one pass in five attempts for 11 yards after Lauletta’s injury.
Replacing Lauletta is a tall task. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior finished 9th in the FCS with 3,022 passing yards and his 24 touchdown passes were 13th nationally. He completed 63 percent of his passes and threw just eight interceptions as Richmond’s 275 passing yards per game ranked 8th in the nation.
Kevin Johnson, a 6-foot, 190-pound dual-threat from Atlanta, came to Richmond as a three-star recruit with a ton of upside. He played in three games as a true freshman in 2015 before electing to redshirt this season. After watching his team struggle in the regular-season finale, Johnson approached Rocco about forfeiting his redshirt year and starting in Richmond’s first-round playoff game.
“I was very adamant about not doing it,” Rocco said. “But when it came down to it, he just really wanted to play. He told me he wanted to lead the team. He told me this was something he and his family strongly believed in. He told me his family would be wasting an incredible opportunity if he did not take advantage of this chance to lead us into the postseason.”
With the prospect of losing a year of eligibility because of one game, Johnson thrived. He completed 15-of-23 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a touchdown.
“There were a lot of question marks coming into the game, but we all knew we could rally behind Kevin,” said Richmond senior Nicholas Vergos, a three-year starter at offensive tackle. “We knew he could run the show. We had the most confidence in him. We put up 39 points on the board even though we left some points on the field.”
“Kevin has been the best scout team quarterback for the first 12 weeks of the season and this last week, we asked him to be our starting quarterback. He has an unbelievable arm, probably the best arm of any of our quarterbacks. We knew he can run the offense to its full efficiency.”
Lauletta’s injury was just the latest in a plague of injuries that have ravaged the Spiders this fall. Gordon Collins, a 220-pound junior tailback expected to take over for 2015 All-American Jacobi Green, tore his ACL in the first game of the season. Six games into the season, talented freshman running back Xavier Goodall tore the ACL in his right knee.
All-American safety David Jones, the preseason CAA Defensive MVP and one of the top NFL prospects in the FCS who is currently ranked the No. 4 free safety in all of college football by NFL Draft Tracker, shattered his forearm midway through the season as well.
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of adversity and with that, we’ve become very united,” Rocco said. “When you survive together, you can’t help but continue to unite. I felt like our locker room before the game, at halftime and after the game was as good a locker room as we’ve had. I sense that everyone responded to Kevin’s decision. Here’s a young man who took ownership and sacrificed for the team. Everyone wanted to be a part of that.”
Richmond enters the game averaging 31.2 points per game. The Fighting Hawks counter with a defense that led the Big Sky in scoring defense (21.5 ppg) and rushing defense (91.5 ypg). UND notched 24 sacks and led the FCS with 20 interceptions thanks to its swarming, high-pressure 3-4 attack coordinated by Eric Schmidt.
Rocco said he noticed UND’s ability to run the ball right away when watching film. North Dakota sports All-Big Sky sophomores John Santiago and Brady Oliveira in the backfield behind junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud. Rocco said he was “really taken aback by” UND’s plus-17 turnover margin. He said he watched UND’s game against Stony Brook, a 13-9 North Dakota loss to open the season, and noticed UND’s physicality on both sides of the ball right away. But he did not realize the ball-hawking nature of North Dakota’s defense.
UND junior safety Cole Reyes, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, led the Fighting Hawks all season, notching three interceptions and scoring a defensive touchdown. Junior Deion Harris led the league with five picks, including three he took back for scores.
Schweigert said having only one game of film on Johnson makes it a tougher preparation this week. He said UND will prepare for Richmond’s offense as much as for the strong-armed, mobile sophomore.
“If you are redshirting somebody who isn’t a first-year player, you have plans for him down the road,” Schweigert said. “He has a lot of talent.”
North Dakota’s athletic future is cloudy at best. With a budget downfall of more than $1 million, the athletic department weighed cutting several of UND’s 20 varsity sports to save money, ultimately electing to keep them all. Rumors have swirled that UND will jump ship to the Missouri Valley Conference as soon as 2018. But for now, the Fighting Hawks football team is facing a new horizon. And the team hopes to embrace the opportunity to its fullest.
“This is the first time in this program’s history that we have this opportunity and we want to take advantage of that and give it everything we’ve got,” Mathewson said.
“It’s definitely different. There is a lot of excitement about it. Some of that is coming from the community and for us guys, this is something new, something we haven’t had. There’s a sense of excitement but I also feel like we have been pretty grounded in this. We have an opponent to prepare for and this is what we have been doing all year. To be on the winning streak we had and to clinch the co-conference championship, we understand what it takes to win games and what the preparation is like. Guys haven’t lost sight of that with the excitement that is going on.”