FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A hot start by the University of North Dakota in the strange spring football season precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic has given the Fighting Hawks confidence entering their meeting with longtime rival and FCS kingpin North Dakota State.
The unbeaten Hawks, who have yet to reach the upper echelon in their more than decade-old transition to the FCS level from Division II, may have found their comfort zone by moving from the run-and-gun Big Sky Conference to the physical Missouri Valley. While there were other reasons for making the switch, including an easier travel schedule, the No. 1 prize was the yearly showdown with North Dakota State.
“To play our rival school for a conference game is just different than playing them when we play non-conference. You're going to play them year after year,” Hawks coach Bubba Schweigert said. “It's big for our program. Huge opportunity to play a team that has won national championships.”
Despite having to drive 70 miles from Grand Forks to Fargo for Saturday's game, No 2 North Dakota may be catching No. 4 North Dakota State at the right time,
The postponement of the normal season cost the Bison two highly touted pro prospects in quarterback Trey Lance and offensive lineman Dillon Radunz, as well as several experienced linemen who would have played fall ball. The Bison, who saw a 39-game winning streak end last month at Southern Illinois, are somewhat of an unknown at quarterback after talented true freshman Cam Miller spelled starter Zeb Noland last week to finish off a win over Illinois State.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have used a strong running game and stout run defense to beat some of the best teams in FCS, including No. 5 Southern Illinois and No. 6 South Dakota State. Running back Otis Weah, a bullish 5-foot-9, 195-pound sophomore from Moorhead, Minnesota, has rushed for 441 yards and six touchdowns.
“They’re a team that’s playing with a whole lot of confidence right now,” North Dakota State defensive end Spencer Waege — from South Shore, South Dakota — said of the Hawks. “I know that just looking at their O-line, I mean everyone who’s going to be playing in the spring was playing in the fall for them. So they’ve got a pretty veteran group all across the board.”
Even so, oddsmakers have made eight-time FCS champ North Dakota State, with a school-record 31-game home winning streak, as slight favorites over North Dakota, which was picked to finish seventh in the league.
The return to an annual showdown has clearly been more of a talking point for North Dakota (4-0, 4-0 MVFC) than North Dakota State (4-1, 3-1 MVFC). Hawks players like Graham Devore, from Grant, Minnesota, have been watching videos of previous games and said he's honored to be a part of it. He said beating the Bison would be a “milestone” victory.
“It's just really cool to see how much interest it brings for the state,” Devore said, before referring to a documentary on the game. “They were talking about it's not a big game until every cafe and barber shop is talking about it.”
Bison coach Matt Entz, on the other hand, said Monday he planned to keep the history lesson brief with his players, who along with most of their fans have considered South Dakota State their top rival in FCS.
“I'm going to give them the facts, of you know, 1894 was the first time these schools played. There used to be a trophy for it. But otherwise it’s the biggest game of the week because it’s the only game," Entz said.
He later added that he's focusing on getting better and not “to win cheerleading contests.”
The teams had played 111 times, with the Hawks winning 62, until the Bison made the jump to FCS I in 2004 and North Dakota opted to stay put. They have played twice at the FCS level, in 2015 and 2019, both dominated by the Bison.
Schweigert said he just wants his team to play well and enjoy the circumstances.
“This is a fun game. I mean, come on, this is what you want," he said. “If you're a competitor you've got to have fun with this.”
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