When Bubba Schweigert took over as the head coach at North Dakota, the first goal he stated to his staff was to win the Big Sky Conference.
Schweigert vowed to instill a day-by-day mentality to climb to the top of the league. The strategy has been consistent, becoming the engine for a steady rather than rapid rise as Schweigert’s third season nears an end. North Dakota’s revamped defense showed flashes during a 5-7 first season. Many around the league and the FCS felt UND deserved a playoff bid after last season’s 7-4 finish.
Saturday in Grand Forks marks the first day in a string of them that will be unlike all the others before it. If Schweigert’s Fighting Hawks can get past surging Northern Arizona in their regular season finale at the Alerus Center, North Dakota will secure at least a share of its first Big Sky crown.
“This is something you always talk about and you always want to have this opportunity,” UND senior captain tight end Luke Mathewson said earlier this week. “When this staff came in, one of the first goals they set is for us to win the Big Sky. Going back three years when they got here to now to have that opportunity, not just being something we talk about but something we are doing, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
An 8-0 record would mark the first time a Big Sky team has gone undefeated since Eastern Washington did it in 2013. UND transitioned to D-I in 2008 and claimed the Great West title in 2011, the year before joining the Big Sky. But the Great West was in a four-team league that did not have an auto bid to the FCS playoffs. A win Saturday would guarantee UND its first playoff berth since moving to Division I.
“We try to really focus on our day to day operations and we even put it on our t-shirts,” Schweigert said on Wednesday. “That’s how we want to approach things. We try to keep it low key. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here. It’s a big game for our program and our team but the emotions have to wait until Saturday afternoon.”
Standing between UND and at least a share of the Big Sky crown is perhaps the hottest team in the Big Sky. North Dakota, which takes its bye week the final week of the regular season, will have to defeat Northern Arizona, a surging squad that comes to Grand Forks on a four-game winning streak.
“We have a red-hot team coming again,” Schweigert said. “Northern Arizona was picked to win the league so we know they are very talented. We are excited to play at home against a good opponent and have an opportunity to be undefeated in Big Sky play.”
Northern Arizona entered the 2016 season with lofty expectations. The Lumberjacks returned the league’s top quarterback in Case Cookus, the 2015 FCS Freshman of the Year. NAU surrounded the strong-armed, poised signal caller with one of the most athletic skill groups in the league, headlined by All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, speedy wide receiver Elijah Marks and versatile running back Kendyl Taylor.
The Big Sky’s coaches and media both voted NAU as the preseason league favorites. Those hopes went by the wayside almost immediately as the ‘Jacks stumbled to a 1-4 start. During the third loss, a 50-35 defeat against No. 4 Eastern Washington at home, Cookus went down with what eventually became a season-ending injury.
The following week, two red-zone turnovers proved to be key detriments as NAU fell 21-18 at Northern Colorado to fall for the fourth time in five outings. Since that loss, the Lumberjacks have been unbeatable.
Joe Logan rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his breakout performance to lead NAU to a 20-14 win at Montana State to spark the winning streak. Senior backup quarterback Blake Kemp threw for 319 yards and four touchdowns the following week in a 52-7 win over Idaho State.
Northern Arizona’s signature win came as Kemp torched Montana’s man defense with vertical throws down the field. Kemp threw for four touchdowns in NAU’s 45-34 win over Montana. Last week, NAU came off its bye and essentially eliminated Weber State from the playoff hunt. Kemp threw for 357 yards two touchdowns and Emmanuel Butler hauled in nine catches for 157 yards in a 33-20 win in Ogden.
“I think the biggest thing is just reps,” Kemp said. “When you are the second guy in practice, you get about 30 percent of the reps. When you get more time out there on the field and you get more time with your teammates.
“Throughout camp, I was throwing with the two receivers and they are really good too but it takes time to get timing down with Butler and Elijah.”
North Dakota will counter with one of the most explosive, high-pressure defenses in the country. UND’s 3-4 scheme brings pressure from varying angles on virtually every snap. The last two weeks, the unit has operated as full force with junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud on the shelf and the UND offense more dedicated to the run than ever.
In a 27-19 win over Weber State, the Fighting Hawks allowed 12 yards rushing. UND sacked Weber’s quarterbacks seven times and won despite notching just 41 passing yards and 12 first downs. In a 23-13 win over Northern Colorado last week, UND allowed six yards rushing.
North Dakota leads the league in total defense (334.1 yards per game), rushing defense (89 per game), pass efficacy defense (117.0), interceptions (18) and sacks (24). Junior safety Cole Reyes has 55 tackles and three interceptions to lead the way. He was added to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list earlier this week. UND has 16 players with tackles for loss and 16 players with sacks. Deion Harris leads the Big Sky with four interceptions, while freshman Torrey Hunt, a Jerry Rice Award finalist, had three interceptions. Junior safety Zach Arnell also has three interceptions as UND leads the nation in picks.
“They’ve taken that program and turned it around to the top of the conference,” said Souers, who became the Big Sky’s all-time leader in career victories with last week’s win. “They are doing it with the fundamentally sound and excellent success model. They are doing it as well as anyone in the country. They play together, they handle adversity, they handle injuries. They handle everything thrown in front of them.”
Schweigert said Studsrud, who did not play last week, has practice this week but will be limited all week. Schweigert said he will be a game-time decision. Over the last two years, UND is 13-3 in games that Studsrud starts and finishes. The team was 1-3 without Studsrud before the last two weeks.
“Studsrud has been a real great competitor and you watch him time and again make real critical plays for that team,” Souers said. “When (senior) Ryan Bartels goes in and becomes the starter last Saturday, it shows the success model of their team. Next man up, uphold the standard of the football team and that’s why they are undefeated in conference.”
North Dakota is averaging more than 10,000 fans in its first four home games. Saturday will likely be on par. North Dakota claimed 24 North Central Conference championships and a national title while playing in Division II. Now the Fighting Hawks have a chance to reach a new plateau during their Division I era.
“If we do it, it will be one of the most exciting things to happen around here in awhile,” Mathewson said. “I’ve never experienced a conference championship before so it would be awesome. But Northern Arizona is a great team. It’s not going to be anything easy. It will take our best effort.”