Big Sky Conference

UND takes patient approach to earn first Big Sky title


Preaching a philosophy is one thing. Getting a group of 100 young men to buy into it is another. When the philosophy helps you reach the pinnacle goal of your journey, the result could not feel more gratifying.

Bubba Schweigert took over as the head coach at the University of North Dakota with a stated goal to lead his alma mater to the Big Sky Conference football championship. The former UND defensive coordinator tasted North Central Conference and Division II national championship glory at the turn of the 2000s. He believed UND could reach a similar level at the Division I level.

Rather than craft a timeline, Schweigert simply decided to take the process day by day. In seemingly every interview he conducts with media, whether local, regional or national, he preaches the focus and discipline it takes to win the day each day. He focuses on the small picture rather than the big picture. His team bought into the philosophy full force.

On Saturday in Grand Forks, the Fighting Hawks reaped the rewards at long last. North Dakota fell behind 31-10 to Northern Arizona only to rally like it has all season long. The Fighting Hawks ripped off 28 straight points, including a game-sealing interception return for a touchdown by junior cornerback Deion Harris to post a 38-31 victor, UND’s eighth straight to sew up at least a share of the BSC crown.

North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert/ by Brooks Nuanez

North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I was really happy for our seniors who have really worked hard at this,” Schweigert said. “They have given up some person goals. Some have changed positions. Some guys have lost starting jobs. They have stuck with it and I’m really proud of those guys, really humbled by this opportunity to be a part of it.”

The win boosted UND to 8-0 in Big Sky Conference play, the first unblemished record in the league since Eastern Washington in 2013. North Dakota’s ninth straight victory sewed up at least a share of the first Big Sky title in school history. It also assured UND will be a part of the FCS playoff field for the first time since moving to Division I in 2008.

“That was a special moment, especially in the school’s history,” Harris said following his team’s Wednesday practice of its late bye week. “We worked so hard to reach this point. Even though the game wasn’t in our favor for almost the whole thing, we just thought about getting that ring, put it in the back of our head and believed it and kept playing for it.”

In Schweigert’s first season, North Dakota’s explosive offense — UND set a BigSky record with 660 yards passing in a win over Montana in 2012, its first in the Big Sky — went by the wayside, replaced by a ball control attack that managed just 15.9 points per game. But the defensive improvements were noticeable from the first game of the Schweigert era.

In Schweigert’s second season, sophomore Keaton Studsrud proved to be a clutch field general, true freshman John Santiago became the first rookie to ever lead the Big Sky in rushing and UND pushed to a 7-4 record. Three straight losses in the middle of the 2015 season, including a loss to hapless Idaho State left North Dakota outside the FCS playoff picture.

This season, UND dropped a four-point loss at Stony Brook thanks to a blocked punt the Seawolves returned for a touchdown with less than three minutes to play for the go-ahead score in a 13-9 slugfest. The next week, Stetson Carr dropped a two-point conversion attempt that would’ve lifted UND past FBS Bowling Green in a 27-26 loss.

North Dakota rallied from a three-touchdown deficit to earn a 47-44 overtime win over South Dakota in its non-conference finale. The next week, UND stuffed Chad Newell’s two-point conversion attempt to earn a 17-15 win over Montana State in hostile Bobcat Stadium. Since then, UND has been unbeatable, ripping off seven straight wins to punch a playoff ticket.


UND junior cornerback Deion Harris/ by Brooks Nuanez

“We never put a timeline,” Schweigert said. “I do not believe in timelines. I told our team that in our first spring that we were going to try win the Big Sky Conference. We knew 2014 would be really challenging. We knew it would be challenging in 2015 and we knew it would be challenging in 2016. I have so much respect for this league and how tough it is, all the top teams, the competitiveness, the coaches throughout the league.

“I didn’t think it would be fair for the juniors and seniors to put a timeline on something. That went against the advice I got from alumni and boosters. They wanted to know my plan, how many years. We weren’t going to run it like a business plan. We were going to encourage our guys to do the best they could every single day, every single practice. That’s why we wear practice jerseys that say day by day.”

Since the Montana State victory, North Dakota’s hyper-active, high pressure defense has gained steam. The Fighting Hawks stuffed Cal Poly’s explosive triple option attack in a 31-24 win the first Saturday of October.

UND rushed for 422 yards and held Sacramento State to 13 first downs in a 40-7 runaway. North Dakota allowed 51 rushing yards to Southern Utah (45-23), 69 rushing yards to Idaho State (28-21), 12 rushing yards to Weber State’s potent ground game and an astounding six yards rushing in a 23-13 win over Northern Colorado with Studsrud on the shelf.

NAU came to Grand Forks on a four-game winning streak with an offense featuring some of the most explosive athletes in the league. DelShawn McClellon’s 88-yard touchdown catch gave NAU a 14-10 lead late in the first quarter. Elijah Marks took a screen pass 44 yards for a score and a 21-10 lead. The North Dakota defense allowed the Lumberjacks a field goal despite reaching the 10-yard line to close the half up 24-10.

The lead swelled to 31-10 before North Dakota began to chip. John Santiago rushed in a 15-yard touchdown, Luke Fiedler caught a two-yard pass from halfback Brady Oliveira and De’mum Mercer caught a 10-yard score from Studsrud to tie the game at 31 with 4:21 left. Less than two minutes later, Harris provided heroics again. His third interception return for a touchdown this season ensured UND will hang a title banner at the Alerus Center in the off-season.

North Dakota junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud/ by Brooks Nuanez

North Dakota junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud/ by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s not hard to get them to buy in if you have good kids,” Schweigert said when asked about the short attention span of today’s young people. “That’s one thing: we don’t give our youth enough credit. On the inside, they are a lot the same. They just have more distractions nowadays, information gets to them quicker. Back when we were playing, we didn’t have social media and all this access to all this information that can be distracting. That’s what’s really a challenge for young people nowadays. They get a lot of outside noise, outside distractions so it’s hard to stay focused. That’s our job: to keep them focused.”

North Dakota’s bye comes at an atypical time after 11 straight weeks of competition. UND will have to wait to see the result of Friday night’s game between No. 3 Eastern Washington and Portland State to know its fate. If EWU wins, the two schools will share the Big Sky crown. A PSU win will give UND the outright title and the league’s auto-bid to the playoffs.

UND is 9-2 and on a nine-game winning streak, yet the latest rankings from the FCS playoff committee has North Dakota at No. 9. The top eight seeds receive first-round byes and home playoff games. UND will need one of the top eight teams to lose to realize that reality in an otherwise historic season that took patience to achieve.

“We feel like we are deserving of a bye after winning nine straight games in a tough league against a lot of hot opponents,” Schweigert said. “We feel that way but we are going to wait for the selection show, see how it plays out and then we will have an opponent to prepare for. Until then, we are going to enjoy this championship.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved. 


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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