Defense got the University of North Dakota to the FCS playoffs for the first time last season. It’s also contributed to where the Fighting Hawks are today: 1-3 with the risk of losing for the fourth time in their first five games for the first time in 30 years.
After back-to-back un-UND-like losses, Eric Schmidt’s defense is looking to get back on track on Saturday against UC Davis.
“It’s one of those deals where you’ve just got to keep working and believing in the stuff that got you to this point,” said Schmidt, the former Mandan Brave and UND Fighting Sioux linebacker who played on an NCAA national championship team in 2001. “We’re just taking it day by day and getting the next guy ready to go.”
UND led the Big Sky Conference and was sixth in the FCS in rushing defense at 91.3 yards per game last season. It’s led the conference in rushing defense in each of Schmidt’s three years.
But this year has seen a change of fortune as UND is 11th of 13 teams in the Big Sky in rushing defense (244.2) and eighth in total defense (450.0).
So what gives?
“We’ve probably not executed at a level we need to,” Schmidt said, stating the obvious. “We've got a lot of guys going in and out of games. But ultimately we just have to play better on Saturdays.”
Schmidt refuses to use the injury factor in explaining the team’s struggle. But it’s there for the whole world to see.
Defensive backs Deion Harris and Andre Randolph were lost for the season before it started. Linebacker Donnell Rodgers is out indefinitely. Safety Cole Reyes, defensive back Evan Holm and linebacker Cam Hunt are questionable for UC Davis.
The revolving door is an issue, but …
“It’s been a lot of guys, more this year than the other three years combined, but it is what it is,” Schmidt said. “It’s our mindset, we haven’t batted an eye. Our jobs as coaches is to use our roster now and get those other guys in the right spots.”
Schmidt spent six seasons on Dale Lennon's staff at Southern Illinois before joining Bubba Schweigert at UND in 2014. The Fighting Hawks progressed steadily during the first three seasons to a playoff berth last year. A loss to UC Davis would mark the first time UND has started a season 1-4 since 1986 when it went 0-6 on the way to a 2-9 mark. A win could save the season.
“The guys are frustrated but I think there is still a level of confidence and maturity there,” Schmidt said. “They know it’s still September yet and there is a lot of time to improve.”
The offense hasn’t helped Schmidt’s defense a lot. The potent running game that featured Jon Santiago (983 yards in 2016) and Brady Oliveira (897) and averaged 208 yards per game has produced just 128 yards per game. Santiago has 177 yards rushing through four games and Oliveira 227.
POLLING STATION: North Dakota State’s 56-0 win over Robert Morris solidified its standing as the No. 2-ranked team in FCS. The Bison are the top ranked of seven Missouri Valley Football Conference teams in the coaches’ top-25 poll. Others: 4. South Dakota State; 5. Youngstown State; 8. Illinois State; 10. South Dakota; 13. Western Illinois; 20. Northern Iowa.
<h3>National Collegiate Hockey Conference
UND OPENING: The Fighting Hawks open the season on Saturday with an exhibition game against the University of Manitoba. The season gets under way for real Oct. 6-7 at Alaska-Anchorage. The home opener is Oct. 13 against St. Lawrence. UND is ranked No. 7 and picked third in the NCHC preseason media poll behind Denver and St. Cloud State.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE: Minot State and the University of Mary were rivals in their NAIA days and both have struggled since moving to NCAA II. The teams – both 0-4 – meet again Saturday at the Bismarck Community Bowl. Kickoff is 2:30.
It’s hard to say if defense or offense will be the order of the day. Neither team is scoring a lot – Minot 11.8 and U-Mary 9.5. Neither team is stopping their opponents – Minot 31.8 points and U-Mary 44.8. U-Mary is third in the NSIC in rushing (213).
Minot State quarterback Andy Jones came off the bench last week to complete 10 of 15 passes for 92 yards in a 47-7 loss to Winona State.
LAMMERS HONORED: Upper Iowa quarterback Brent Lammers was NSIC offensive player of the week after throwing for 288 yards and three TDs and running for two TDs in a 58-14 win over U-Mary.
A SWEEP: Dickinson State swept player of the week honors. Sophomore quarterback Hayden Gibson was 18-for-28 for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-7 win over Mayville State. Junior defensive back Cain Boschee had three interceptions and made two tackles. He returned one interception for a touchdown.
ANOTHER SWEEP: Bismarck State rolled over rival North Dakota State College of Science 3-0 in women’s volleyball to move into a tie for the lead in the Mon-Dak Conference volleyball race. The 25-23, 25-19, 25-15 win was the Mystics’ fifth straight win by a 3-0 score. BSC leads the conference with a 5-1 record. The Mystics are 16-4 overall. Williston State and NDSCS are both 4-1 in the conference. BSC and Wahpeton meet again in the regular-season finale October 18 in Wahpeton.