North Dakota started from scratch and the results came more quickly than expected. Despite the improvement, the individual recognition has yet to come.
Bubba Schweigert took over his alma mater before the spring of 2014 and went to work. His staff went back to basics, spending the duration of spring drills honing UND’s once-porous defense.
“We really did start from scratch,” UND senior captain middle linebacker Will Ratelle said. “We broke down the fundamentals. We improved a lot.”
In Chris Mussman’s final two seasons at the helm, UND averaged 28.6 points per game, including 33.5 in 2012. But North Dakota gave up almost 35 points per game during the span and posted a 9-14 record, resulting in Mussman’s firing.
Schweigert installed a ball-control offense, an attack about 180 degrees from the spread downfield passing attack under Mussman. Schweigert also prioritized a return to the formula which produced the program’s most successful era. Schweigert served as the team’s defensive coordinator from 1997 until 2003. His 2001 defense was his best as the team then known as the Fighting Sioux surrendered 12.5 points and 50.3 rushing yards per game en route to a Division II national title.
Last fall, UND took its first step to returning to its defensive glory days with Schweigert’s return to the sidelines in Grand Forks. In 2014, North Dakota led the league in total defense, surrendering 354.4 yards per game in the best offensive league in the country. During league play, UND gave up 25 points per game in a league where six teams averaged 30 points per game or more. Eastern Washington took out UND’s top two quarterbacks en route to a 54-3 win. Without that game, UND gave up just short of 20 points per game against Big Sky opponents. UND went 5-7, including 3-5 in league play. North Dakota ended the season on a two-game winning streak thanks to victories over Northern Arizona (30-28) and Northern Colorado (33-14).
Yet when the All-Big Sky honors came out in December, just two names from UND’s defense appeared on the list. Will Ratelle, UND’s physically intimidating middle linebacker, racked up 106 tackles, 61 solos and 5.5 tackles for loss. Also notched two sacks. He, along with freshman defensive end Brandon Dranka, were the only UND players honored by the league. Each received just honorable mention all-conference nods.
“We don’t ever talk about it,” Ratelle said in July. “We don’t need to. We have a good defensive staff that puts us in good positions to be successful. That’s all that matters.”
North Dakota gave up 29 points to an explosive Montana State offense that would score 136 points its next two weeks after defeating North Dakota. The next week, North Dakota held Montana to 18 points. UND averaged a league-worst 15.9 points per game, so to win three league contests is evidence for how much the defense led the way.
“We aren’t concerned about ratings in the league,” Schweigert said. “I like our guys. I think they work hard. They listen to the message. They work together well. It’s a scheme you have to play together. Certain positions are going to get more statistically. But we also recognize those guys as a whole unit and how we play together and how important that is. We take total pride in our team defense.”
Ratelle was the thumper in the middle, but he was surrounded by standouts across the front seven. As a true freshman, Dranka had 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in just three starts to earn all-league honors as defensive end. Inside linebacker Taj Rich returns for his senior year after a 2014 that included 82 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. The outside linebacker corps is senior Dayo Idowu and junior Brian Labat. In 2012, Idowu led the team with 3.5 sacks. Labat led the team with 12 tackles for loss.
Ratelle has worked his way into the leader of the crew, in no small part due to his work ethic in the weight room. The ripped, muscular 5-foot-11, 255-pound captain has multiple UND lifting records. The soft-spoken Edina, Minnesota native can squat 585 points and power clean almost 400.
“He’s a very good leader just by example,” Schweigert said. “He’s a guy who does things the way you want them done. He’s hardly noticeable. He’s always early. He always puts in extra time. He’s excellent in the weight room. He’s very flexible even though he’s a bulky guy. He works hard on his movements. And he’s stepped up his leadership. Leaders, at some point, need to be able to step up and speak their minds. He’s willing to do that now too. He challenges his teammates to do the right thing. The one thing that Will will always do is trying to get better each and every day.”
A season ago, North Dakota was the best team against the run in the league by a long shot. UND gave up 102 rushing yards per game, almost half a football field less than No. 2 Montana; the Grizzlies gave up 148.1 yards per game on the ground. Stud nose guard Ben Peters and Dranka, a 6-foot-2, 235-pounder who finished just outside the Big Sky’s top 10 in tackles for loss last season, anchored the line. Rich and Ratelle were the leaders of the charge playing behind them.
“Will embraced all the changes,” Schweigert said. “There’s no secret that we want to stop the run first and foremost. That’s a real challenge in the Big Sky. We feel we have an advantage if we do that. Will carries that torch for the coaching staff. Will takes pride in that.”
Ratelle takes pride in stopping the run like Schweigert takes pride in what he calls the state’s “flagship institution.” Schweigert spent six seasons as the defensive coordinator at perennial Missouri Valley contender Southern Illinois. The allure of everything UND has to offer drew him back.
“North Dakota is a special place,” Schweigert said. “We have a rich football tradition at North Dakota. We have a rich tradition of conference titles when we were in the North Central conference. We are a national championship program. There aren’t many teams in the country that saw they have a national championship football trophy in their halls. We aspire to move our program to the top of the Big Sky. Once you do that, if you are among the top in the Big Sky, you have an opportunity to win a national championship. We are trying to do that one day at a time.”
If the UND offense can produce, the team could see a jump into the upper half of the 13-team Big Sky. Ratelle said the goal is “the only step: to win the conference.” And if UND can achieve the lofty goal, some of the defensive stars are sure to get their just due.
“You try to not think about it too much because it’s a team game but obviously everyone has individual goals and I’d like to be first-team All-Big Sky if I can be,” Ratelle said. “That would benefit our team. But if I’m not, it doesn’t really matter as long as our team does well. I try not to forget that.”
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF NORTH DAKOTA ATHLETICS.