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.