Pro Fighting Hawk’s Next Steps: Mason Bennett

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Mason Bennett has done darn near everything playing for the Fighting Hawks on the defensive side of the ball. He is a tall defensive end with enough speed to rush off the edge and cover the flat on a routine basis. At 2019 media day, he was asked who he modeled his game after, and  he noted Kansas City Chief, Frank Clark. Both are lanky edge rushers versatile to go where their defense needs them to.

Mason’s agent, Dr. Ray  Haija said of Mason that he, “is a top-flight edge rusher, his game is reminiscent of Bradley Chubb, he possesses great leverage to win the outside battles to the QB.” He has plenty of film from this year alone to consider to the good in that regard. In addition, when Bennett was injured this year, the defense suffered and getting an edge rush was much harder to get consistently. 

One could make the case that he is similar to another Chief, Terrell Suggs. Bennett and Suggs are both crafty enough to not only blow through you, but they are both able to set the edge and keep the run game between the tackles in the box. When UND had the limited modicum of success on defense against NDSU that it did, Mason setting the edge was a part of that. 

As for what’s next for Mason, Haja said that, “beginning the first week of January, Mason will begin training and enter into an intensive 9 to 10 week training program that will work to address his agility, quickness, speed, and strength. Scouts are interested in seeing how the on the field quickness and strength (that has drawn their interest in Mason) will translate into quantitative testing numbers at his pro day.”

Haja’s firm also represents Canadian Football League players, a league that if the NFL does not come calling, Mason will find himself in as a top-10 prospect. On either side of the border Mason Bennett will have a chance to be a pro Fighting Hawk on the football field. 

As to what lead Haja to work to signing Bennett, Haja said ” Mason is a bona fide the NFL prospect, there is significant interest among scouts, and what has drew us to Mason beyond his on-the-field talents is that he is a high character individual who possesses tremendous maturity and takes a professional approach to his football career. We have no doubt he will take that same professionalism into his pro day preparations and his NFL pursuits.” Every interaction we have had with Mason has backed up Haja’s thoughts of his character. Combined with his on the field acumen and calm respectful demeanor off it, one would think one of 32 NFL teams would like to see how Mason could improve their edge rush game.

In a league that seems to be heading to dual threat quarterbacks, having a rusher who can set the edge and take away the outside lane is more valuable than any stat line could indicate. Suffice it to say, Mason Bennett is an absolute NFL Draft pick in the late rounds, that, depending on how the preseason shakes out could prove a lot of teams wrong for passing on him multiple times.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, and under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

 

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.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, and under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

Vent about a tent: UND Football Opinion

This Saturday, the Fighting Hawks Football program heads south to Louisiana to take on the Colonels of Nicholls State. You will read plenty about on field happenings from other outlets and this one as well before, during, and after the game on Saturday.

The primary focus of this article is simply to implore the NCAA to, frankly, do better when it comes to awarding bids. In any other sport, at any other time, this situation of a visiting team playing for its season to continue would not be in any way acceptable.

I understand that Nicholls State is in the middle of renovating their facility and upgrading their facilities for visitors in the long run. That is great and should continue. I also get that during the season, some times accommodations need to be made and that no one will be happy with them fully.

What, to me, makes zero sense is how the Colonels, as a part of their facility profile they had to submit for this bid had this issue over looked by the Selection Committee. Those deciding who gets to host these first round games knew the locker room situation and thought this was fine. Assuming that the Colonels bid more than UND,  I understand why they were awarded the game, but again, any explanation for why seniors should have to play their potentially last game getting dressed in a portable tent while showering in what look like rent-a-showers, to me is not good enough.

Heck, I do not even think UND should be hosting as some fans do because of this facility issue. I just do not think the committee acted fairly towards its student-athletes that play this game. One of the goals of the NCAA, that I have heard constantly in everything it does is to make the student athlete experience better.

What part of making a team get dressed in a tent in a parking lot for a postseason game does that? Why is the money from the host institution seeming to be your only consideration? Assuming Nicholls State bid more than the Fighting Hawks for this game, I understand why it was awarded to them to some degree. Heck the tents may even be fantastic, but this creates the appearance of impropriety.

If you are a Bison fan reading this article, ask yourself this, when the Bison have to travel on the road in the FCS, or if they keep playing at the level they are, in the FBS one day, for the playoffs (assuming some level of expansion) would you be ok with this? I think we all know the answer.

Teams playing through renovations is quite fine and a part of sport at any level. What matters here is the fact that this is the postseason. On a humid day in Louisiana, one team will have a home field advantage not because of their fans being there, but because it appears that the NCAA decided that the money it gets from a team is worth more than a fair playing field.

This reeks of disrespect on the NCAA’s part. I do not think it was intentional but it comes off that way. Nicholls State should not be allowed to host this game, because before a single fan walks into the stadium, and before ESPN starts their broadcast, the deck, to some degree is stacked against UND. The last plus 80 degree day in Grand Forks happened on August 24, right as UND was wrapping up fall camp. I will surely bet it is not as humid here as it is in Thibodaux year round.

Nicholls State, congratulations for making the tournament, this article is not about your team or your bid. This is a simple request to the NCAA for future tournaments to simply do better. Having to dress in tents for what could be some of these seniors’ last ever football game is not in any way an advancement of the student-athlete experience.

As stated, UND does not need to host this game, I would have preferred Nicholls State being sent on the road to somewhere with better facilities for them to practice. The Fighting Hawks could have traveled as well.

With all of this being said, Saturday’s game will be electric and pit one of the best senior signal callers in the nation in Chase Fourcade against a pro style defense with novels worth of schemes it can run on a weekly basis. This article is simply a simple request to the NCAA for future FCS playoff matches, when selecting a host, value student athlete experience a little bit more than the guarantee you receive.

In short, NCAA, please, for the sake of everyone, do better.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, and under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

“Young Skokes” helps UND Football earn a 36-18 victory over Southern Utah to stay in 2019 FCS Playoff discussion

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

After the game he had, freshman running back for the Fighting Hawks, Luke Skokna stepped up to the podium as the first player to talk to the press. He illuminated a lot of key things throughout the week leading up to him getting his red shirt pulled playing in his fifth game as a freshman. For example, he noted that his position coach Malcom Agnew was critical in his development throughout the year and helped him get ready for this moment. In addition, he mentioned how positive his injured teammate Cam McKinney always is and how the two have bonded throughout the year.

McKinney and Skokna are both, as UND Head Coach Bubba Schweigert says “home-run hitters” capable of quick scores and capable of changing the course of a game with a simple juke or two. Skokna produced a lot of those as, filling in for an injured McKinney, he finished the day with 16 yards on a mere 11 caries with two end zone visits among them to spur UND forward to a 36-18 win to move to 7-4. Finally, senior wideout Travis Toivonen, who was waiting to chat with the media loudly praised his teammate yelling joyously “Young Skokes!” supporting his teammate when Skokna finished his time with the press. On his redshirt being pulled so he could play today, Skokna “everything happens for a reason.”

The game opened up for the Fighting Hawks who weathered a tough storm in the first half full of turnovers and gifting Southern Utah chances to score on short fields, which they converted on two out of the three turnovers. Thunderbirds quarterback Chris Helbig quietly had a nice day against a stout UND defense, utilizing a lot of crossing routes and underneath looks to go 24-42 for 258 yards (one touchdown) with only one interception on the day.

His ability to extend plays and convert on key third downs helped Southern Utah hang around through into the third quarter. UND had to adjust their coverage a bit to disrupt some of the crossing looks presented by the Thunderbirds and as the game went on, thanks to the help of Defensive Coordinator Eric Schmidt’s staff, UND’s defense reasserted themselves in the second half.

One standout was Mason Bennett, although he did not get a sack, he finishd with five tackles and a quarterback hurry. He sometimes had to work through double teams and still set the edge for the Fighting Hawks quite well along with standout Jaxson Turner who finished with six total tackles on the game. As those two work back to full health, if UND gets to play again next weekend, good things could happen.

Now What 

Tomorrow is Selection Sunday for UND. They will know around 11:30 or so what the fate of this 2019 group is. They will have a first round game next weekend, or their season will be over with the 30 point loss at Idaho State, and the Weber State potential upset slipping through their fingers being the the two biggest marks on their record one could concede to the committee for letting in a similar team with a similar resume who won one of those games that UND did not. At the end of the day, projections are great, but the committee’s is the only one that matters, let’s see what happens.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

UND Football: Regarding playoffs, ask again later

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

The Fighting Hawks dispatched their third ranked side this afternoon as they vanquished the number nine ranked Bobcats of Montana State 16-12 thanks to a recovered blocked punt for a touchdown and a defense that held them in the game, limiting the Bobcats big plays and keeping the team in the game.

Now UND heads into a bye week for the second time this season with a chance to rest up, especially on defense where injuries have forced underclassmen to step into bigger roles a bit faster than initially thought.

What does all of this mean for where UND should be ranked? Well one could argue for ranking the Fighting Hawks in the low 20’s based on their win this weekend and without looking at the rest of the FCS I could certainly see that. It is a subject that will be debated fiercely by pundits and fans, especially those who interact with Brian McLaughlin and Sam Herder of Hero Sports who have two of the votes in the FCS Stats Poll publish their ballot and in at least Brian’s case why he votes the way he does as well.

Sam discusses his picks and votes extensively with Brian on their weekly podcast hosted through Hero Sports, give it a listen sometimes, these are two of the most plugged in folks in the FCS you will meet. They follow every team in the country at this level to the best of their ability and this sport is better because of them.

To re-purpose a phrase from Brian he likes to use when describing things in the FCS landscape, on this UND team we need to see more data. That is yes, the win today is great and this Fighting Hawks side has shown resiliency throughout the year when dealing with adversity. Can we overlook the Idaho State loss and potentially the Eastern Washington losses on the road?  Maybe we can if UND plays well enough to allow it.

If this team goes 7-4 in total and loses one of its last two home games that look winnable against Northern Colorado or Southern Utah, do they make the playoffs over say a 7-5 win team with an FBS win and a better strength of schedule. I do not know. I honestly don’t know what to make of this team other than they merit perhaps a low rank in the applicable polls and a spot on the good side of the bubble, for now. The polls, especially the FCS Stats Poll are merely a snapshot of a wide open landscape of football full of wonderful people who cover the game to the best of their ability.

If a MEAC team like the Aggies of North Carolina A&T finishes second and does not make the Celebration Bowl, and finishes with a 9-2 or 8-3 record and UND loses a must win game at home should they be in over the Aggies at that record with a 7-4 finish? I do not know. Southern Illinois could finish 7-5 and have a case to be in over the Fighitng Hawks as they have an FBS win to their credit.

As to the Fighting Hawks, their decision to play 11 games will either be a stroke of genius or seen as myopic if they finish on the wrong side of the bubble if they finish 7-4 and are eclipsed by a 7-5 team with an FBS win or a 9 or 8 win MEAC team like the Aggies? That is the reality of a 12 game maximum schedule season. Schools make their choice and live with the results and consequences, good and bad either way.

What I know for sure is this team needs to have a strong finish and go 8-3 to remove more questioning articles like this being written. If this team wins out it will 100 percent make the playoffs barring some odd circumstances around the FCS. In that case we will be focused on UND’s first or second round opponent depending on their position in the field.

In a few weeks if UND finishes out of the playoffs due to losing any of its must win games at home or being on the bad side of the bubble beating Weber State and losing the other two games then the questions raised by those not voting for or voting for UND lower will be valid.

All of this is to say, do not read too much into the polls this week or next week. UND needs to win three more games to remove as much doubt as possible and cement a playoff spot and potential national seed. This team will not (hopefully) focus on the polls and keep their eyes on Weber State. They face a potential top 10 opponent on the road in their last chance to add a quality win to their resume before playing two must win games to end the season.

To those following this team, focus on the on field results. They guide the polls and what writers will say about UND’s playoff chances. More data is required to determine the fate of the 2019 UND Football team, two weeks from now is the next chance to acquire some based on their result against Weber State.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories you will not see elsewhere about UND Football and other college football teams, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story we write as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

UND Football: Bye Week Musings

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Heading into the bye week, the Fighting Hawks fly in where most expected them to be if things went right, 2-1 with the one loss coming to North Dakota State.

What we did not expect from this team is getting there with an offense incapable to this point of running the ball consistently save a few big plays and winning two games without Nate Ketteringham to lead them.

What does this mean going forward? Here are three things to look at post bye week for this team.

Who starts at QB next week against Eastern Washington? 

Well if Ketteringham is healthy, I expect him to get the nod as he has lead this team pretty much since he came here. When needed he makes the big throws and does enough to keep the team in most games. This staff likes Schuster quite a lot and does not want to risk him losing a red shirt year to play in a few extra games without a need, based on what I have read. I realize that Ketteringham is not who a lot of fans want to see based on the wonderful exploits of Schuster against the Bearkats.

However, I also know one is a leader who may not make every throw that Schuster does, but knows how to manage a game a little bit better due to his seniority, and knows more of what he will face against the Eagles. I could be wrong of course and Schuster could play, but as Drake saw starting a true freshman on the road against a tough defense can, at the first sign of issues put you at more of a disadvantage. Schuster brings a lot to this team, and having him for the first four years of Missouri Valley play, barring injury to others or severely not ideal performance, is worth more in the long run.

Is he Trey Lance, no he is not, could he develop into the next Keaton Studsrud with time, perhaps a little better? I think so, he has a lot of raw traits that Studsrud did without the immediate need to play as a true freshman (I realize he came on later in the year due to injuries but he did so without the four game leniency for saving the redshirt that Schuster has afforded to him) with the four game redshirt rule (saving Schuster for only injuries if Ketteringham can play is the way I think this staff is leaning).

On defense

This team has a defense that can scheme against anyone. They did well against the Bearkats considering how long they were on the field. One thing I have noticed from the first three games as an observation, is this team’s ability to consistently tackle on the edge and in the second level. They did keep the ‘Kats hemmed in a bit better than their time against NDSU, but it seems whenever this team has to play a dual threat quarterback, they face issues limiting their sucess. Part of the reason, I think, Sam Houston State tried that swinging gate formation on the fourth-and-two that sealed the game for UND, was because they showed the same look earlier before running a base look and their quarterback, Eric Schmid was able to run right through. If the Kats go back to that base look perhaps last week ends a bit differently.

Second level tackling and edge tackling need to keep up for this team to have a chance against any quarterback, like all world Eastern Washington QB Eric Barriere next weekend.

Need for speed

With Izzy Adeoti recovering from an injury and Cam McKinney moved to running back, this team does not have many over the top players on the edge that can run past players. They rely on strong possession wideouts and a lot of jump balls. While that has worked for them so far, I am expecting more teams to scheme for the fades and jump balls as we move forward with safety help and running two high schemes most of the time.

Until UND can run the ball more consistently or find someone outside who can break a game open over the top with consistency, be it through moving McKinney back to wideout or Izzy getting healthy or someone else whom we have not seen, this team needs a different element on the edge to make defenses think twice about how they are scheming for an offense that needs more options.

New offensive coordinator, Danny Freund, has done a great job opening the playbook and giving teams more to think about, and going forward for the future of this program finding or rediscovering an outside speed runner to open up the inside more will help everyone out in the long run.

 

Genius: How UND defeated No. 24 Sam Houston State 27-23

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Coming into this game, UND had some things to work on, and moving forward into the bye week before playing the always challenging Eastern Washington on the road, they still do. With that being  said, today the Fighting Hawks were able to not only earn a must win game at home against the Bearkats with a tough win, but they did so by out scheming them.

The 28-24 win had a lot to do with not only the players, true freshman Tommy Schuster came on after starter Andrew Zimmerman exited with an injury and did enough to keep his team in the game, while making multiple tough throws in coverage to UND’s talented possession receivers like Noah Wanzek. In addition, on defense Jade Lawrence finished with two interceptions, and Jaxson Turner and Mason Bennett among others made life tough for the quarterbacks of the Bearkats.

That is not what drove things in a vacuum today. It seems to be a common theme for opposing coaches to note how many looks UND’s defense provides. This Eric Schmidt lead defense is a lot closer to a pro scheme that utilizes the skills of the players he has to define different iterations of what to run as opposed to looking to shoehorn players into roles.

Last week, NDSU head coach Matt Entz noted the need to not teach too much of what UND’s defense to quickly because they can run a because the defensive playbook that is so deep. This week, Bearkats’ head coach K.C. Keeler called UND Head Coach Bubba Schweigert’s ability to scheme so well on defense “genius.”

When asked about that, Bubba aptly deflected praise onto Schmidt and his staff for collaboratively coming up with the best schemes each week for that opponent. While UND lost last week against NDSU, their defense had some moments of brilliance in part due to scheming, they forced NDSU to adjust on the fly, and the Bison to their credit did so. Today, UND’s ability to adjust on the fly to the high powered offense of Sam Houston State proved to be the difference.

In the fourth quarter, the Fighting Hawks simply schemed correctly to put Noah Larson in the right place on a 4th-and-2 that would have put Sam Houston State about 10 yards away from scoring the go-ahead and likely winning touchdown.

The Bearkats ran kind of a swinging gate formation where a lot of the line starts over on the sideline. Quarterback Eric Schmid took the ball and ran right at the defense. Thanks to the scheme drawn up for that scenario, Larson knew to rush and he made the difference in the end with making the stop.

Going forward, we will see a different team against Eastern Washington than the one that took the field tonight. UND wants to use the bye to get healthy. We could potentially see Nate Ketteringham back under center for the Fighting Hawks if he is sufficiently healed from his injury sustained against Drake.

UND does have some things to improve on for the Eastern Washington game, and they will be discussed here and elsewhere, but for today, this win keeps them solidly in the hunt for a playoff bid and shows them a way to compete with fast and high skilled teams, if they can execute the drawn up schemes, then maybe more coaches might call Bubba or his staff geniuses or some other iteration of the word.

What needs to happen: UND-Sam Houston State

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Tomorrow, UND and Sam Houston State will battle in a Potato Bowl that could serve as a playoff game for both of these teams. Whomever walks out of the Alerus Center victorious will have a slightly easier path to the FCS playoff bracket, while the loser will be faced with a week of self reflection and have to string together near perfection to achieve the same fate.

For these Fighting Hawks, here is what needs to happen in order to soar on to their next test against national powerhouse Eastern Washington on the road in two weeks.

Breakout with big plays

I want to see the second half offense against Drake that started when Andrew Zimmerman came on in relief. While it is important to have the ball for much longer than a ‘Kats team that runs a prolific spread offense highlighted by two mobile quarterbacks, Eric Schmid and Ty Brock. How do you mitigate the power of running quarterbacks as an offense? Well hold the ball longer and fire up some big plays. While the Bearkats certainly provide more of a test than the Bulldogs did, UND has to be willing to dive deep in the playbook against these ‘Kats to have a chance.

In addition, until UND can find a true over the top game breaker on the edge, these Fighting Hawks will need to be able to keep the ‘Kats off guard with their schemes and use deception and option looks to open up seams for Zimmerman to throw into.

Convert when you get over the 50

Last week, UND had some good drives against NDSU that were snuffed out. Be they interceptions or bad blocks or anything else, this team left chances on the table to dramatically alter the momentum of the game. How do you fix this?

Well, if you make the opponent’s territory you need to get points. Sam Houston State runs their tempo like a fast break and when you let their offense onto the field, it had better be because you just scored, preferably a touchdown. UND has to improve efficiency when they get good drives going. For Saturday to work well for them, watch how many times UND gets points of any sort when they cross into BearKat territory.

Edge Tackling

Schematically, UND played a sound game against the best FCS program, arguably in the history of football at this level. The Bison often ran through missed tackles on the edge to extend drives and force UND to use its untested depth up the middle which made it harder for their players to stay fresh on defense.

For as much as these ‘Kats use the edge of the field on offense, UND must sure up their tackling on the edge to match.

If not, the ‘Kats could walk out with a well earned win. In that vain, if the Fighting Hawks can sure up the edge of their scheme, then getting more reps to get big plays and converting more drives becomes easier. Up the middle, this team with its starters is quite stout regarding tackling and ending plays before they flourish.

On the edge, and down in the depth chart, that is not always the case. If the edge can be fortified then the potent offense of the ‘Kats hopefully will find themselves wandering in the wilderness all day while the Hawks can soar ahead, if not the playoffs slip further out of reach for a team wanting only its second Division One playoff spot in its history and first since 2016.

Prediction: Not a lot to go on in comparable opponents for these teams. This game for both of these sides is the first comparable FCS test either one faces in a battle for the playoffs. If the Alerus Center can maintain its loud start throughout and Andrew Zimmerman’s arm can come to life when needed, and the ‘Kats cannot run their fast-break style offense all game, then maybe UND can eke out a victory, but it will be close and most fans in attendance will be on the edge of their seats all day long.

UND 33 Sam Houston State 30 is my guess in what promises to be a Potato Bowl for the ages.

Surveying UND-Sam Houston: Three Thoughts

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

This weekend, the Fighting Hawks take on the Bearkats of Sam Houston State. Here are some thoughts on this one based on what we know UND needs to build on and where Sam Houston could both challenge them and face challenges.

Sure up the edge rush

Sam Houston loves to throw the ball. Expect the Bearkats to throw 35 or more times this Saturday during the Potato Bowl. One thing that will go a long way to determining how things go is UND’s edge rush. Mason Bennett and Jaxson Turner have been impressive in both the Drake and NDSU games so far and will have to lead the way for the Fighting Hawks on defense as is to be expected.

In addition, when I say edge rush I also mean perimeter tackling. Last weekend against NDSU, multiple times UND had a Bison trapped for a short 2-3 yard gain or a loss and missed a tackle on the second level. Those gains quickly morphed into momentum killing plays that lead to or themselves produced touchdowns. The Bearkats are just as fast as, if not faster on the edge than the Bison ( who are far better clearing lanes in the box and running over a lot of teams they play (see their opener against Butler for some examples)).

If UND can limit the missed tackles and confuse whomever the Bearkats have under center whether Ty Brock or Eric Schmid, then they can improve their odds. The defense of Eric Schmidt is one of confusion, and delayed blitzes and stunts. For this defense to work you have to be alright with whomever is not blitzing being able to consistently tackle. That is the biggest area of improvement to look for this weekend for the Fighting Hawks.

Who are these ‘Kats?

Sam Houston has not played an FCS opponent yet this season. They have hung in against  FBS New Mexico losing 39-31, and soundly defeated NAIA Oklahoma Panhandle State University 77-0. We do not know a lot about how these ‘Kats will look against an FCS side yet because we have not seen it, so I am wary to judge Sam Houston to severely to the good or bad based on their limited resume. That said, I know what these ‘Kats are good at and it is speed and tempo.

When UND played the ‘Kats in Texas and had to challenge the Sam Houston State offense last season, and did not succeed the tempo of the game reminded me of a fast break in basketball. When Sam Houston State rolls, no matter the personnel, under the offense of Head Coach K.C Keeler it can feel like being over matched on a fast break against the Michael Jordan lead Chicago Bulls.

Look for the ‘Kats to push the tempo and run a lot of plays quickly. If Sam Houston State can limit substitutions by Schmidt’s defense than up the middle could become really open really fast. UND’s depth up the middle has yet to strut their stuff this season, and will be tested on Saturday.

Final Thought

These Fighting Hawks are a good team. Andrew Zimmerman as the starter under center has a great arm and will show it off this weekend. These Fighting Hawks need to connect on a few deep passes to combine with the power spread offense they are now running. If UND can only run check downs and are forced to look underneath they fundamentally do not have the same speed on the edge that the Bearkats do, at least yet. We have seen flashes from Cam McKinney at running back this season and hopefully Izzy Adeoti is able to play soon, but this Fighting Hawks team needs someone of their big group of wideouts to be able to break a game open early over the top of a defense.

To wrap up, UND is dealing with flukes, that is proving which of their past two weeks is not who this team is. For everyone wearing their Kelly Green in the Alerus Center, they all hope that last week in Fargo against the best FCS program as a start of renewing an in-state rivalry was the fluke. If you are a fan of the Bearkats, well you hope that UND’s week one performance against Drake was the fluke.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Is this the 2013 team that blew out Valparaiso before having a season so mired in infamy it lead to the ouster of former head coach Chris Mussman? Of course it is not, this is a team rooted in strong fundamental football concepts instilled by this staff since day one of their reign. Is this a team ready for another crack at the upper-echelon players of the FCS be they Eagle, Duke, or Bison? Well we do not know that yet.

If this team wins Saturday that conversation can continue. If this team loses it realistically needs to run the table or at most lose one more game to stay in the playoff conversation. This team needs a signature triumph and an 8-3 record competing as an independent or a 9-2 record to be considered for the playoffs. Saturday at the Alerus Center is the next chapter and what happens there will help determine these Hawks fate.

 

The good, not so good, and now what

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Today, UND lost to NDSU 38-7, a score pretty well within the range of what was predicted. Thanks to Sam Herder and my work with Hero Sports we were able to be there to cover the yearly renewal of what hopes to be the biggest rivalry in FCS football once again. My recap featuring an exploit the Bison found in the UND defense and how they utilized their talented starter at Quarterback, Trey Lance, will be on Hero Sports tomorrow, and again big thanks to Sam and Brian McLaughlin for trusting us to represent them today at the Fargodome.

All of those intros included, let’s now turn our focus to the visitors, UND.

What went well 

Part of the reason NDSU ran the edge so much was because Donnell Rodgers had the middle locked down for UND. Remember when he was lost for the season in 2017 after an injury against Missouri State? Well I do and teams had the middle of the field more open to run on a UND team that projected better than it finished due in part to Rodgers not patrolling the middle. Point being that his presence helped sure up in between the tackles for UND.

On offense, Andrew Zimmerman, new starter, looked really good for having his first start come in the Fargodome. He did overthrow some deep balls and NDSU made him pay twice for some errors of his with well earned INT’s but Zimmerman can make most throws and has some mobility to boot. Maybe losing Nate Ketteringham will not hurt the team if Zimmerman can step up.

These are the two biggest positives I think UND fans can take away from this one at the Fargodome.

The not so good

NDSU is still really really good at FCS Football, that has not changed since the 2015 game against NDSU and will not change for a while, to say the least. When you make mistakes against this team, they make you pay more than anyone else at this level as shown by the results of every missed tackle just to name one area.

NDSU is the 1927 Yankees of FCS College Football in terms of sheer dominance at the point of attack, especially at the line of scrimmage, and today was unfortunately no different. UND got some pressure on Lance, but needed more.

On special teams, whomever is kicking off for UND needs to consistently hit touch backs. The Bison routinely started a little closer to their goal because neither kicker of UND could consistently hit the ball in the endzone when it mattered most.

On offense, the power jet sweeps this team seems to run more of now stopped working real quick after they started. To run laterally against NDSU with any success you need not only fast players which UND has a few of, but an ability to run consistently up the middle, which UND did not have much of today. While UND will go back to this concept as they should, they need to run some more variations of it to keep the other team guessing. The Bison did not have to guess much today on defense.

Now What 

This team has one week to get ready for another potential shootout with the Bearkats of Sam Houston State. The Potato Bowl will feature two 1-1 teams looking for a win in what could be a theoretical elimination game from playoff consideration for the loser. UND did put some good things on film today in the quick passing game and in making UND run Lance everywhere. The problem came because they could not risk containing Lance or putting a spy on him too much lest they risk one of the other talents the Bison have burning them.

Do I think this team could beat NDSU if we played this game again in the playoffs? Yes, but the task is quite long and no teams have had success doing that for the past few  years.

Do I think, more importantly, if UND can beat Sam Houston State at home? Yes I do, however this team cannot get into a track meet with the Bearkats lest they give up 50 quick points on defense.

Is this coaching staff still capable of greatness? 

100 percent yes. Under Bubba Scheweigert progress in the culture has been improved dramatically which combined with better recruiting helps every part of the program. They do not play the games, they gameplan for them. Today, that plan gave this team a chance but even if the score remained, this team needs to be able to consistently adjust.

While I love opening the playbook under Freund, I would like to see a few more different looks and things we have not seen yet to see how this team runs the entire offense. I think the former UND Quarterback has a few more tricks up his sleeve, deployment of said tricks are quite essential.

In addition, next week for this team on defense, the Bearkats are going to air the ball out. If the defenders can get some more help in the second level to keep 5-8 yard gains to tackle on first contact, then next week at the Alerus Center could produce a good result.