It’s been 20 years since Utah State’s football team has lost to a FCS program.
The Aggies are 13-0 against FCS opponents since getting stunned at home by Idaho State by a 28-27 scoreline on Nov. 18, 2000. There’s plenty of reasons to believe USU will continue its streak in Friday’s home opener against North Dakota, especially after last Saturday’s promising 26-23 victory over Washington State.
On the flip side, this could potentially be a very challenging home opener for the Aggies, inasmuch as the Fighting Hawks are not a run-of-the-mil FCS program. North Dakota is, after all, ranked in the top 10 nationally in all three FCS polls, including seventh by the coaches.
The Aggies, who are 11-1 in their last 12 home openers, will welcome the Fighting Hawks to Maverik Stadium for a scheduled 7 p.m. opening kickoff. Friday’s game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.
“We need to get better this week, in my opinion,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during his weekly press conference. “You know, you look across college football and there were four or five times this (past) weekend that FCS opponents beat Division I schools, and this one (we’re playing) has a tremendous history anyway. ... They beat the brakes off of South Dakota State (during the spring), who just beat Colorado State this weekend, so there’s a lot of reasons to be alert and awake and aware of the opponent coming in this week.”
Not only did South Dakota State defeat Colorado State last Friday, it humiliated the Rams, 42-23, in Fort Collins. North Dakota earned a convincing 28-17 victory over South Dakota State during the spring — one of four wins by the Fighting Hawks over teams in the FCS Top 25 during a truncated season. North Dakota secured its spot in the FCS Playoffs and ended up losing to top-ranked James Madison, 34-21, in the quarterfinals.
The Fighting Hawks welcomed back nearly every one of their starters from that squad, including nine on offense and 10 on defense. North Dakota competes in arguably the nation’s top FCS league, the Missouri Valley Conference, which currently has four teams ranked in the top 10 and two more in the top 25.
Indeed, the Aggies will be facing a quality opponent Friday, and starting running back Calvin Tyler Jr., a graduate transfer from Oregon State, stressed they will not overlook the Fighting Hawks.
“I watch a lot of football,” Tyler Jr. said. “(The coaches) don’t have to remind me. We just know we want to go 1-0 every week and we’re going to have that same mentality. What I was saying to the guys this week in my room (is), ‘don’t forget that we were a 1-6 team.’ I wasn’t part of it, but I’m part of this program now and we were a 1-6 team last year, so we need to treat every game like we’re a 1-6 team, with our backs against the wall like we’re the underdog, every game.”
Like the Aggies, the Fighting Hawks played on the road last weekend, and they left Pocatello, Idaho, with a 35-14 victory over the Bengals. North Dakota outscored Idaho State 25-7 in the second half to pull away.
The Fighting Hawks did not outgain the Bengals by a wide margin — 368-361 — but controlled the line of scrimmage, plus won the turnover battle, 3-1. North Dakota intercepted three ISU passes and turned those takeaways into 17 points. The Fighting Hawks possessed the ball twice as much as the Bengals (30:01-14:59) over the final three quarters.
“I think we got better as the game moved along,” said North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert, who is in his eighth season in charge of the program. “You know, we protected (quarterback) Tommy (Schuster) pretty well again, we were able to run the ball more effectively in the second half than we did in the first half. But what we need to do better at is focus throughout the game. You know, we had some mistakes late in the game that really could have helped us in some drives where we ended having to kick a couple field goals. ... So we’ve really got to challenge our guys to keep getting better and better, but for the first time out for those guys working together, I think we played with great effort.”
Anderson raved about how physical the Fighting Hawks are. Having experienced performers on both sides of the trenches certainly helps. North Dakota’s offensive line only allowed 2.0 sacks in seven games this past spring. Conversely, North Dakota’s stellar defense racked up 24.0 sacks and forced 15 turnovers — eight interceptions and seven fumbles.
“They’re not afraid to put their face on you,” Anderson said. “It’s a physical, blue-collar football team in a league that all plays that way. They’re not going to be intimidated at all when they come in here. They’re going to expect to be successful and win. ... We have to match and exceed their physical nature up front, their energy level. (We have to) tackle well, be physical. It’s going to be a key part of the game.”
The Fighting Hawks are also a very disciplined team as they only committed 3.43 penalties per game during the spring, which ranked fourth nationally among FCS programs.
North Dakota has an All-American running back in Otis Weah, who rushed for 114 yards and a trio of touchdowns on 22 carries against ISU. The 5-foot-9, 215-pounder amassed 730 yards and found paydirt nine times on 102 carries during the spring.
The Fighting Hawks also have an efficient signal caller in Tommy Schuster, who completed 14 of 18 passes for 183 yards and one TD, vs. no INTs, against the Bengals. Schuster completed 65.5 percent of his passes and averaged 204.0 yards an outing through the air during the spring.
Like USU, North Dakota shined on special teams last season and returned its starting punter and placekicker. The Fighting Hawks are only one of nine FCS teams to block multiple punts in three of the last four seasons.
Indeed, Schweigert will be bringing a veteran squad to Logan. Those veterans will need to be at their best to hang with the Aggies, their head coach asserted.
“(USU) played very inspired football on Saturday night and went on the road and got a really good win for their program, so I’m sure their fan base will be really excited and it will be a really tough environment on Friday night,” said Schweigert, who has a record of 43-34 at the UND helm. “... They’re a really hard team to prepare for.”
Anderson is certainly looking forward to playing his first home game at the Aggie helm.
“I’m excited about playing in front of our home crowd on a Friday night,” said Anderson, who went 2-0 against teams from the Missouri Valley Conference during his time at Arkansas State. “I think it’s a whiteout if I’m not mistaken, so it should be electric and I expect it to be. And any fans that are watching (this press conference), man, we need you, we need you big time this Friday night. Where else would you want to be on Friday night?”