The stage seems to be set for North Dakota to prove it belongs among the Big Sky Conference elite.
Last season, UND posted its first win over an FBS team in program history with a 23-14 win over Wyoming to open its season. The newly anointed Fighting Hawks had a promising win over surging Portland State in the City of Roses. When quarterback Keaton Studsrud was healthy, North Dakota won seven of eight games, the lone loss to five-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
Off the field, the university continues to build momentum. Toward the end of last season, the school opened its High Performance Center, a $17.8 million chunk of UND’s $180 million campus renovation that also includes an expansion to its law school, built a 325,000-square-foot medical school and a 30,000-square-foot Collaborative Energy Complex. The athletic department also added full cost of attendance, providing an additional $3,400 for student-athlete scholarships in order to keep up in recruiting in the Midwest.
On the field, Bubba Schweigert enters his third season at the helm with a collection of solid pieces, including Studsrud, who enters his third season as a starter, along with John Santiago, the first true freshman to ever lead the Big Sky in rushing yardage. Defensively, All-Big Sky safety Cole Reyes anchors a unit that also returns All-Big Sky outside linebacker Brian Labat and gets talented inside linebacker Taj Rich back from a torn ACL suffered against Portland State.
“You never know until you get started but we have a lot of veterans returning and that can be a real plus if those guys improved but that’s not a given,” said Schweigert, who’s team was picked to finish fifth in the league by both the media and the league’s coaches. “We have a number of new guys we think can help us. And our vision is to win the Big Sky. We think it’s going to happen someday and if it happens this year, that would be a great thing for our football program, a great thing for our fans and supporters.”
Studsrud, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is a cerebral player who manages North Dakota’s power run offense efficiently. He suffered an ankle injury in the second half of UND’s eventual loss to Idaho State. At the time of the injury, UND led 31-15. ISU rallied for a 37-31 win at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, the Bengals’ only league win of the season.
The following week, UND lost at Weber State, 25-24. In Missoula, the absence of Studsrud continued to ravage the ability to compete as Montana scored at will against UND’s depleted secondary. Third-string quarterback Makena Simis tied a UM record with six touchdown passes in a 42-16 win. The loss dropped UND to 4-4 overall, including 2-3 in league play.
But Studsrud returned against Montana State and UND’s offense got back on track. The Fighting Hawks scored 44 points for a one-score win over the then-No. 19 Bobcats. North Dakota, a team that averaged just 15.9 points per game in Schweigert’s first season at the helm in 2014, scored 45 points in wins over Norhtern Colorado and Cal Poly to finish 7-4.
The FCS selection committee weighted the ISU loss heavily and burst UND’s bubble in the process. Despite a 4-1 start and three wins to finish the season, North Dakota did not qualify for the FCS playoffs.
“It wasn’t the result we wanted but we are moving on,” said junior captain inside linebacker Connor O’Brien. “There are a lot of guys that are pretty motivated right now. That’s obviously our goal is to get into the tournament, compete in the Big Sky and get to a national championship.”
“We want to be a good team in November and we’ve been able to do that in 2014 and 2015 but a year ago, we weren’t good enough in the middle of our season,” Schweigert added. “We weren’t able to overcome the injuries and injuries are a part of the game.”
North Dakota returns a collection of proven talent but must find replacements for a handful of standouts. For the last two years, Will Ratelle has been one of the most menacing linebackers in the Big Sky. Now he’s trying to make the Atlanta Falcons as a fullback and special teams standout. UND must also find replacements for Brandon Anderson, Colton Boas and Sean Meehan, the veteran core of the offensive line that blasted holes as Santiago burst his way to 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season playing college football.
“Losing Will is a big deal,” Studsrud said. “He led the defense and was the face of North Dakota. “You need that guy. Will had the presence. He never messed up, he was mentally smart and he was one of the strongest dudes I’ve ever seen in my life. He was a freak and a lot of fun to watch. He was a great leader and set a great example for all the guys on the defense.
“Losing those three guys, Brandon Anderson, Colton Boas and Sean Meehan, they were big components that had been in the system for awhile who had been in the system and were smart bit we have guys who are waiting their turn. We developed depth during spring ball. I’m not too worried about it. They will be fine and John will have plenty of holes to run through.”
Studsrud will have several viable options playmakers outside his star tailback to turn to. As a freshman, Luke Stanley led UND with 26 receptions for 312 yards and five touchdowns. Josh Seibel and Clive George, UND’s two best speed threats on the outside are also back, as is senior tight end Luke Mathewson.
Defensively, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Reyes is one of the best playmaking safeties in the league and a preseason All-Big Sky selection. O’Brien had a solid sophomore season, finishing third on the team with 61 tackles, including five tackles for loss. Junior Jake Disterhaupt and Labat combined for 6.5 sacks from their outside linebacker spots in UND’s 3-4 scheme. Deion Harris, one of the Big Sky’s biggest cornerbacks at 6-foot-3, looks primed to take the next step as he enters his junior season, his second as a starter.
UND’s returning talent coupled with a schedule that does not include Montana, Big Sky playoff qualifier Portland State or perennial power Eastern Washington plus home games with Cal Poly, defending Big Sky champion Southern Utah, Weber State and Northern Arizona has North Dakota feeling cautiously optimistic about taking the next step.
“We have to embrace our expectations but not let them get into our heads too much,” Studsrud said. “You want to start the season off strong, win the Big Sky and make a run in the playoffs. You can’t let it get to your head but it’s also good motivation and it sets our expectations even higher internally. It’s good for the program too, getting more attention, getting the fan base more involved with what’s going on.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.