Fighting Hawks end season with 24-6 playoff loss: Now What?

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Today, the Fighting Hawks looked to win against the Colonels of Nicholls State on the road to extend their season to the second round of the FCS Playoffs.

That did not come to pass, as Nicholls State, lead by sophomore running back Julien Gums found holes up the middle all day en route to a 24-6 victory. He ran for 172 yards on a mere 16 carries to put the Fighting Hawks on their heels all game. Senior signal-caller Chase Fourcade was able to capitalize on UND needing to stack the box at times to find wideouts.

His biggest play o the day and one that arguably broke things open for the Colonels was a 45 yard perfectly lofted touchdown pass to Dai’Jean Dixon to get the lead for the Colonels into double digits.

For UND, this game was not the way anyone wanted the season to end. All day the Fighting Hawks were able to find some sucess, especially early on through the air, but never enough for a touchdown. The first couple of drives resulted in punts in Nicholls’ territory or a missed field goal. Senior UND quarterback, Nate Ketteringham never made more than one or two reads on the majority of his throws and while the offense found some sucess through the air, they did not find enough to get a touchdown.

It seemed that the Colonels looked at what UND brought to the game, a talented group of wideouts that are big and physical yet an offense still arguably in transition with players not recruited to play in the offense they now find themselves in, and forced UND to have to run the ball occassionally. Once they were one dimensional,  the Colonels keyed in on Ketteringham’s reads and forced him to be perfect. Unfortunately, despite a valiant effort he was not.

On defense, the Fighting Hawks played a lot and did a lot to keep the team in the game throughout. They bent for most of the game, keeping the game within a touchdown for the majority of the time. In his final game as a Fighting Hawk, Mason Bennett finished strong and notched two sacks as part of an eight tackle game. He will get some pro looks from the NFL, and the CFL, and one would think a team in need of a rangy, hybrid defensive end who can play outside linebacker and has a high football IQ would want to venture to Grand Forks to chat with him over the coming months.

Now What 

Well, the long winter of the offseason has now returned for this UND Football program. They did just enough to squeak into the 2019 FCS Playoff field with a perfect home record and a mere one road win. Nicholls State, to their credit, seemed to mimic what NDSU did to the Fighting Hawks back in September. They utilized big offensive lineman and speed up the middle to take UND out of their own rythm on defense, where they have thrived on stopping the run. On defense, Nicholls State took away the first read for the majority of the night, and made UND run the ball to win, a task it could not do.

What does this all mean going forward? Well first off thanks to all seniors who played their final game today. The legacies left by folks like Mason Bennett and Travis Toivonen are hard to top. This senior class has grown and seen nearly all of the Bubba Schweigert era first hand. Arguably, this senior class has helped spring UND from the abyss its football program was in to one that is competing for playoff berths every season. That is a step we should not look at likely, as there are plenty of college football programs at all levels looking for leaders to do just that.

Now, UND needs to take the next step as they fly to the Missouri Valley Football Conference starting next year. To me, it is the SEC of the FCS. The goal for this team next year of course will be to make the playoffs, but to continue the ascent this program has been on since Bubba took over as Head Coach needs to win at least one playoff game. This team is now in the same conference as NDSU, and however unfairly, will have every move compared to the Bison even more so, now that they share the same conference.

What do the Bison do yearly? Win Championships, and what does that take? Winning multiple playoff games. What does winning multiple playoff games every year mean? Along with adding to records, it adds time to the season for practice and skill development and builds the program. UND getting a bye next year or even just winning a game would be massive. Bubba has built this program in steps since he came here, first he helped establish a winning culture, next he helped this team leave no doubt and earn its first ever seed and home playoff game. Next, he showed that this program can fight through adversity, and after a year of multiple injuries at key positions had this team within one game of the playoffs .This year they made it back to the playoffs.

Now, the returners and this staff have to work with the big recruiting class it has coming in to get this program over the next hump. Changes could be on the way amongst the coaching staff as people move on to their next job or calling in life. I think this staff, especially the offensive staff lead by Danny Freund as the new coordinator, have breathed life into a once stagnant offense and should be given an immense amount of credit for utilizing players recruited for a different system and making them fit the new power spread look UND ran this year. Now, beginning to see players recruited for this system of offense will be the next marker for this team. How they can all work together to advance the offense will determine the fate of this team. Even the best defenses need some points to win games.

We will have more thoughts on UND Football in the offseason but wanted to talk about the game tonight, and my first thoughts on what’s next for this Fighting Hawks program. It is one on the rise, but still with a long way to soar to catch up with its new conference mates.

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