The last time North Dakota's football program squared off against a team from the Mountain West Conference, it left Laramie, Wyoming, with a 24-13 victory over the Cowboys on Sept. 5, 2015.
The Fighting Hawks will be aiming for their second straight win over a Mountain West program when they face Utah State on Friday night at Maverik Stadium. Both teams are coming off season-opening victories last weekend --- USU in come-from-behind fashion on the road against Washington State, 26-23, and North Dakota on the road against former Big Sky Conference rival Idaho State, 35-14.
USU has won 13 consecutive games against FCS opponents, but none of those were against teams ranked in the top 10 nationally. The Fighting Hawks, currently ranked in the top 10 in all three FCS polls, return all but three starters from last season's squad, which made it to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs.
Indeed, the Fighting Hawks should provide a stern challenge for the Aggies in their home opener, which will be televised on 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."
Bubba Schweigert is in his eighth season at the North Dakota helm and was the head coach when the Fighting Hawks reigned supreme against Wyoming six years ago. North Dakota has lost its last three games against FBS foes, but two of them were against traditional Pac-12 Conference contenders Washington and Utah, and the other was a 27-26 nailbiting setback to Bowling Green --- all of them on the road.
Schweigert and company will be aiming for their third straight appearance in the FCS Playoffs and second Missouri Valley Conference championship in a row. South Dakota shared the conference title with South Dakota State and Missouri State this past spring, inasmuch as the 2020 FCS season was moved to the spring of 2021. Four teams from the Missouri Valley are currently ranked in the top 10 nationally.
North Dakota has developed into a top 10 FCS program thanks to a ball-control offense and a stingy, yet opportunistic defense. The Fighting Hawks have been balanced offensively over the past few seasons and that trend continued in their victory against ISU. North Dakota rushed for 185 yards and threw for 183 in that contest.
Nevertheless, the Fighting Hawks will typically try to establish their rushing attack first, and they have an All-American tailback leading the charge in Otis Weah. The 5-foot-9, 215-pounder rushed for 730 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games this past spring en route to finishing fifth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, which is given annually to the most outstanding offensive player at the FCS level. The junior powered his way into the end zone three times last week against ISU and gained 114 yards on 22 carries.
"He's low to the ground with his center of gravity, he's powerful and they give him the ball a lot, and they're dedicated in trying to run the ball downhill," Anderson said of Weah, who had zero negative rushes against the Bengals. "They've got a good O-line. Schematically, they're going to make you see a ton of different formations, and you're going to have to tackle well."
As talented as Weah is, he doesn't have to shoulder the offensive load because the Fighting Hawks have a proven quarterback in Tommy Schuster. The sophomore completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 10 TDs, vs. five interceptions, last season, and was very efficient against ISU as he threw for 183 yards on 14 of 18 passing. Schuster also gave the Bengals some troubles with his feet as he rushed for 40 yards on 12 attempts.
"I think he's got the ability to hurt you with his feet and he connects the dots really well," Anderson said. "I mean, you would consider them more of a control style of ... system, but they have the ability to hurt you with their quarterback speed and he can obviously make the throws. They've got a couple of big targets."
One of those "big targets" is 6-4, 215-pound wide receiver Garett Maag, who easily led the Fighting Hawks with 523 yards on just 25 receptions last season. Bo Belquist also caught 25 passes for North Dakota this past spring.
Maag and Belquist didn't play against Idaho State, but both should be ready to go against USU.
"We anticipate having both of them back," Schweigert said during his weekly press conference.
Without Belquist and Maag, Schuster relied on several targets against the Bengals. Five different North Dakota athletes hauled in two or three receptions a week ago.
North Dakota's starting tight end is Adam Zavalney (6-4, 230), who scored three times on just seven receptions last season. North Dakota's offensive line is anchored by 6-7 senior left tackle Matt Waletzko, who is one of three returning starters in the offensive trenches.
The Fighting Hawks shined defensively during the spring as they limited opponents to 21.0 points an outing, plus racked up 24.0 sacks and had 15 takeaways --- eight interceptions, seven fumble recoveries --- in just seven games. North Dakota, which only lost one defensive starter from that squad, ranked 10th in the FCS in sacks.
"They're exactly where they're supposed to be," Anderson said when asked about North Dakota's success on the defensive side of the ball. "They're super well coached. They don't get out of gap, they don't miss an assignment and they play with tremendous effort. They get a lot of hats (to the ball). ... And they play in a great league. You look at the teams that they play on a weekly basis, and there's some really good football being played."
North Dakota's defense is led by linebacker Devon Krzanowski, who was the Missouri Valley Conference runner-up in the defensive player of the year voting. The St. Cloud State transfer was the team leader in tackles (51) and tackles for loss (6.5) during the spring, plus he chipped in with 3.0 sacks.
The Fighting Hawks have three other proven performers at the linebacker position in fifth-year senior Jaxson Turner, Josh Navratil and Noah Larson. Larson contributed with 38 tackles, 6.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks last season, while Navratil ranked second on the squad in sacks (4.5), which was just half a sack behind Turner. Larson led the way with 10 tackles last weekend, and Turner finished with five tackles and a sack. Turner has played in 40 games for the Fighting Hawks.
Safeties Hayden Galvin and Jordan Canady both picked off a pair of passes for the Fighting Hawks last season, and Galvin had an INT last weekend. Canady has been in the starting lineup 30 times during his time in Grand Forks.
In addition to Galvin, North Dakota got interceptions from safety Kadon Kauppinen and cornerback Evan Holm in its win at ISU. Holm nearly returned his pick to the house for the Fighting Hawks, who converted their three INTs into 17 points.
Another North Dakota athlete who came up big against ISU was defensive end Jaelen Johnson, who finished second on the team with six tackles. Johnson and the Fighting Hawks came through with goal-line stand in the second quarter.
North Dakota has also made some noise on special teams over the past few years. Case in point: The Fighting Hawks have blocked at least two punts in three of the past four seasons.
The Fighting Hawks welcomed back their starting punter (Cade Peterson) and placekicker (Adam Stage). Peterson averaged an impressive 51.3 yards on three punts against the Bengals, while Stage was successful on 2 of 3 field goals attempts. The fifth-year senior split the uprights on field goals of 42 and 26 yards, and missed from 35 yards out.
North Dakota notes: The Fighting Hawks have captured 27 conference championships and have made 17 NCAA postseason appearances during their 126-year history (660-427-30). ... North Dakota won a NCAA Division II title in 2001. ... The Fighting Hawks were ranked as high as second in the national polls last season. ... North Dakota dominated the time of possession battle against Idaho State, including by a 30:01 to 14:59 margin over the final three quarters.