BOZEMAN, Montana — Flush in the middle of a bye week, Jeff Choate spent the last several days soaking up the rain in Seattle while recruiting for his Montana State football team.
But his mind and the mind of his staff was not solely focused on future Bobcats. The current Bobcats have a not so pleasant taste in their collective mouths after losing decisively to Sacramento State on homecoming two weeks ago.
Choate wasted no time talking about Sac State during his weekly meeting with the media on Monday except to reemphasize how good he thought the Hornets are. Example A: Sac thrashed No. 5 Montana in Sacramento on Saturday, sacking UM quarterback Dalton Sneed five times before knocking him out of the game in the third quarter of a dominant 49-22 win. Choate made sure to reference that MSU gave up four sacks to Sac’s fearsome pass rush led by All-American candidate George Obinna.
The rest of Choate’s Monday comments centered upon he and his team’s respect for the University of North Dakota.
“It’s a typical Big Sky deal where you turn on the tape and they are better than you want them to be,” Choate said with a chuckle. “We are going to have our hands full. It’s a tough environment to play in.”
UND enters Saturday’s showdown at the Alerus Center with a 4-3 record. But the Fighting Hawks are 3-0 at home. And those wins include a 27-23 win over No. 24 Sam Houston State in September and a 38-36 comeback victory over No. 12 UC Davis the first Saturday of October.
“We know who they are at home,” Choate said. “That’s all we have to do to get their guys’ attention is say this is who we are playing. We aren’t playing the team that played at Idaho State (a 55-20 loss), we aren’t at the team that lost at Eastern Washington (35-20) in terrible weather conditions (in Cheney). We are playing the team that got after it and beat Cal Davis.
“They look different at home. They play fast, confident. You can tell they feed off that crowd. It’s an impressive looking group.
In the previous three seasons under Choate’s direction, North Dakota and MSU have squared off twice. UND held on for a 17-15 win in Bozeman in the first Big Sky Conference game of Choate’s career in September of 2016.
The following year, Chris Murray and Troy Andersen each rushed for more than 130 yards, Murray threw for 175 more and totaled four touchdowns and the Bobcats raced to a 49-21 victory in one of their better offensive showings that season.
The two schools did not play last season, the first in UND’s transition out of the Big Sky. Last year and this fall, North Dakota is playing an eight-game Big Sky schedule even though the Fighting Hawks are not technically in the league anymore. UND officially joins the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.
North Dakota’s wins over Big Sky teams count toward UND’s record as an FCS independent and could help the Fighting Hawks toward an at-large playoff bid. Each game against Big Sky teams, including Saturday’s, counts against UND’s opponents’ Big Sky marks.
“It is a conference game,” Choate snapped when asked if it felt like a league contest. “It’s a conference game for us. I pointed that out to our players on Sunday, make sure they understand the significance of this game for us. There have been a couple of teams that have rolled out to North Dakota and maybe not understood the significance or importance of that and paid the price.
“This is a huge, huge game for us in terms of the way this season sets up, coming off the bye week, getting that taste out of our mouth from that Sacramento State game who evidently is a pretty good football team.”
North Dakota went 8-14 under Chris Mussman in its first two years in the Big Sky in 2012 and 2013, including 8-11 in league play. North Dakota brought back former defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigert to replace Mussman before the 2014 season.
The Fighting Hawks nearly made the FCS playoffs with a 7-4 record in 2015. UND surged to its first and only league title in 2016, posting an 8-0 mark against league competition and winning nine games overall, earning a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs.
The 2017 season saw a rash of injuries decimate any playoff hopes. UND finished 3-8. Last season, they earned a winning record, going 6-5.
“They have a similar identity and they really are the same group,” Choate said. “This is the third time we’ve played them in my four years here, the second time we have gone over there. And it’s a tough environment. They are playing very, very well at home. They are a completely different team. It’s almost like watching two different teams when you put the film on.”
Montana State has won six Big Sky road games under Choate’s guidance, including five of its last eight. MSU earned a 34-28 overtime win at Cal Poly in its only road Big Sky game this season. Montana State went 3-1 in league play away from Bozeman in 2017 and 2-2 last season, including a 29-25 win over the Griz in Missoula. Yet Choate knows the Alerus Center is particularly unique.
“You have that student section right behind you. It’s an 11 a.m. mountain kickoff but don’t let that fool you. They will be in the parking lot starting about 6 a.m. shotgunning beers and doing whatever it is they do over there. The thing I remember about our last trip over there is they have done their homework and you better have some ear plugs in because I got called some new names. And I’ve gotten called a lot of names.”
Location: Grand Forks, North Dakota
Nickname: Fighting Hawks
Founded: 1883. Founded on a strong liberal arts foundation, the school is still one of the top public research institutions in the country.
Enrollment: The school had 13,847 students and an endowment of $278.6 million.
Stadium: Alerus Center. Opened in 2001, the $80 million indoor arena seats 21,000, including 12,283 for football games. Last year, UND averaged 9,336 fans during five home games. North Dakota is averaging 8,743 during three home games this season.
THE TEAM (4-3 overall)
The Coach: Bubba Schweigert, sixth season at UND. After 10 years away, the longtime UND assistant returned to Grand Forks before the 2014 season. Schweigert coached at UND from 1989 to 2003, including serving as the defensive coordinator for the 2001 Division II national championship season.
The UND alum served as Southern Illinois’s defensive coordinator for six years leading up to 2014, his first as a head coach. As the head coach at UND, Schweigert is 34-30, including 18-14 in league play. The Fighting Hawks went 8-0 in the Big Sky in 2016 to share their first BSC title.
THE OFFENSE — Players to watch
Nate Ketteringham, quarterback, 6-4, 203, senior — Ketteringham is a familiar name to Big Sky Conference followers. During two seasons as the starter at Sacramento State in 2015 and 2016, Ketteringham threw for 3,391 yards and 24 touchdowns.
In Sac State’s 41-38 win over Montana State in 2016 (one of two victories that season for the Hornets), Ketteringham threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns. The Hornets rolled up 34 first downs and 510 yards of total offense, scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the Bobcats.
“I don’t remember much,” Choate said of his last matchup with Ketteringham. “I blacked that one out of my brain. I remember (former MSU quarterback) Chris Murray made a bunch of plays (187 yards rushing, 3 TDs). It would be nice to have Chris Murray and Ketteringham reunite again.”
After transferring to North Dakota and sitting out the 2017 season, Ketteringham started 11 games last season. He threw for 1,835 and 16 touchdowns as North Dakota finished with a 6-5 record.
Over the last four seasons, the Fighting Hawks have leaned heavily on the two-headed running back monster of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira. Those two exhausted their eligibility following last season. The Fighting Hawks have transitioned to a more spread out offense this year with Ketteringham serving an elevated role as a triggerman.
“Ketteringham does a really good job of box counting and if he likes the numbers on the perimeter, he’s going to get the ball out there,” Choate said.
“I think this kid does what they ask him to do very well. I’m seeing a quarterback who gets up to the line of scrimmage and if you are 2-over-2, they have their RPO and he is going to get the ball out there. He’s an accurate passer, he has big targets and he takes advantage of that.”
Ketteringham threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns in the win over UC Davis, 360 yards and two touchdowns against Idaho State and 234 yards and two scores in last week’s win over Cal Poly. He is completing 62.7 of his passes for 1,236 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
James Johannesson, running back, 6-1, 240, senior — Over the last two seasons backing up Santiago and Oliveira, the former University of Minnesota transfer earned 114 carries. Last season, he rushed for 651 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 7.0 yards per tote.
Now he’s the featured back and he is making the most of his opportunities. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has scored six rushing touchdown. He has 368 yards, including 107 against Eastern Washington, 87 against UC Davis and 82 last week against Cal Poly.
“The big kid, he’s a load, man,” Choate said. “There are some guys making some business decisions when he comes through the hole, getting out of the way.”
Noah Wanzek, wide receiver, 6-4, 210, senior — Wanzek has been as productive as any wide receiver in the Schweigert era after breaking into the starting midway through his freshman season in 2016. That season, in six starts, Wanzek caught 25 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
He hauled in 52 passes for 648 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore, then 52 more passes for 6845 yards and six more touchdowns as a junior.
“You look at the roster and you think he’s a Kevin Kassis but he’s 6-4, 212 so he’s more of a Troy Andersen than a Kevin Kassis in terms of his style and body,” Choate said. “They get the ball to him in a variety of ways.”
This season, Wanzek has 39 catches for 495 yards and a pair of scores. He caught nine passes for 86 yards and a touchdown against Drake. He caught nine passes for 109 yards against Sam Houston State. He caught six passes for 124 yards against Idaho State.
He is one of three big targets that Ketteringham looks to, a trio that also serve as excellent blockers in UND’s run game.
“They have a really big, physical receiving corps and I think it creates matchup problems a lot of times, especially in the red zone. They will hit a lot of back-shoulder fades. I think all three of their starting receivers are listed at 6-4. So it’s a matchup problem on the perimeter but also because those guys are so big, they are really good at blocking on the perimeter of their offense.”
THE DEFENSE — Players to watch
Donnell Rodgers, inside linebacker, 6-1, 238, senior — Rodgers is the hammer on the inside of UND’s 3-4 defense, a “sideline-to-sideline player who is really physical”, according to Choate, who raves about watching the Fighting Hawks fly to the ball as a defensive unit.
“I just love watching this team play defense because they play hard,” Choate said. “They run to the ball.
“They create a lot of problems for you because of their pre and post-snap movement They will stem a bunch pre-snap and post-snap, they are going to do a lot of stunting and looping. They are going to get their hits on the quarterback.
“You can tell these guys, they are coached the right way. I really enjoy watching this group play.”
That group is led by Rodgers, UND’s leading tackler with 74 stops, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Last season, a year after losing 2017 to a knee injury, Rodgers led UND with 72 tackles and eight tackles for loss.
Jaxon Turner, outside linebacker/edge, 6-2, 225, junior — Over the last two seasons, Turner has proven to be a productive threat off the edge of UND’s odd-man front defense. He entered his junior year with 6.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
This season, the former high school running back (like Rodgers) is again leading the Fighting Hawks in sacks and tackles for loss with 4.5. He has 32 tackles overall and his next tackle for loss will give him 20 for his career.
Mason Bennett, defensive end, 6-4, 258, senior — Bennett, the latest successful recruit from Canada (Oliveira is also from north of the border), would’ve been an all-conference selection last season had UND been in a conference.
As a junior, the powerful and explosive edge notched nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss. His sack total would’ve led the Big Sky Conference and came close to breaking UND’s single-season record.
This season, he has been held in check but he still plays a key role in UND’s pass rush totaling 15 sacks so far this season.
“I think they’ve built it right,” Choate said. “I think 55, 15, really good players. No. 44, really good tackler at linebacker.”