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Husker opponent preview: Everything you need to know about the North Dakota Fighting Hawks

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North Dakota Utah St Football

North Dakota running back Luke Skokna (7) carries the ball against Utah State.

Here are Nebraska's starters for the North Dakota game, according to the Huskers' game notes.

Location: Grand Forks, N.D.

Coach: Bubba Schweigert (9th season at UND, 47-40)

Record: 0-0 (5-6 in 2021)

Rankings: None.

OFFENSE

Averages per game / FCS national rank (from 2021 season)

Points: 24.5 / 73

Total yards: 403.1 / 33

Rushing yards: 163 / 35

Passing yards: 240.1 / 33

DEFENSIVE

Averages per game / FCS national rank (from 2021 season)

Points: 20.3 / 22

Total yards: 336.7 / 30

Rushing yards: 139.4 / 44

Passing yards: 197.4 / 27

SPECIALISTS

Averages / FCS national rank (from 2021 season)

Kickoff returns: 21.1 / 41

Punt returns: 6.1 / 79

Net punting: 37.9 / 32

Why you may need Rolaids

1. Simply put, Nebraska’s run defense was virtually nonexistent last Saturday. For those who made the trek to Dublin, many have probably had the sound of the Aviva Stadium PA and ‘Evan Hull the ball carrier’ ringing through their ears this week. And the North Dakota backs and offensive line are likely coming into Lincoln licking their chops. Although Isaiah Smith has a relatively small body of work - he finished the 2021 season with 356 yards on just 52 carries and added two touchdowns - he’s poised for a big year at the FCS level in 2022. Northern Iowa transfer Tyler Hoosman will likely factor in as well. Nebraska has made running backs look good before and another coming-out party could happen inside Memorial Stadium if the Blackshirts don’t tighten up.

2. UND’s front seven is a strength and Nebraska’s offensive line left a lot to be desired against Northwestern. Combine those two and mix in UND’s aggressive defensive style, and it could be another long day for the Nebraska run game. Especially if Nebraska is unable to get a push and establish some early momentum there, much of Saturday’s game could fall on the shoulders of the quarterbacks.

3. Scott Frost said it best last season – it’s like he’s watching the same movie on repeat. Welp, for both those on the field and those in the seats, that movie has been on a seemingly never-ending loop. There’s no denying the pressure that already exists one game into the 2022 season. And there’s also the psychological toll this string of single-digit losses has taken. The plot of each loss has seemingly hinged on the same theme - a self-inflicted mistake or mental blunder. Will this week be different? And if it’s not, what will go wrong against UND? If the Huskers stumble and get in their own way once again, the mood throughout Memorial Stadium could get interesting.

Why you might chill

1. Although Nebraska has laid an egg in these types of games before – Troy (2018) and Northern Illinois (2017) – it’s a game that should push NU back to .500 and send the Fighting Hawks back north with a hefty check and a 0-1 record. There’s no excuse. Although Nebraska isn’t in any position to overlook a team, it’s a team the Huskers should handle. Especially when it comes to the physical advantage. The Fighting Hawks have just one win over an FBS opponent in program history (Wyoming, 2015). North Dakota hasn’t faced a Big Ten team since 1976 (Wisconsin) and UND’s last Power Five test came in 2018 – a 45-3 loss at Washington. If all goes well, Saturday should give the Huskers some confidence and momentum to build on.

2. There were a few silver linings in the loss to Northwestern, one of them being the play of Casey Thompson. Especially in the first half. Thompson threw for 355 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats. And although he finished with a pair of interceptions, the junior was sharp with his passes overall. As for the defense he’ll be facing, this will be UND’s first game of the season and their secondary will have a new look. A golden opportunity for Thompson’s arm to shine and the Huskers could and should take advantage through the air.

3. North Dakota’s offense went cold at times last season, especially in the red zone. UND finished the 2021 season with just a 69.4% success rate in the red zone, which ranked 108th out of the 123 FCS teams. And the Fighting Hawks leaving so many points on the board proved costly, especially considering they were in every game last season. UND averaged just 24.5 points per game overall, which ranked 73rd in the FCS. As they did last season against Fordham, this week could be the perfect rebound opportunity for Erik Chinander’s defense.

By the numbers

2,493: UND quarterback Tommy Schuster finished the 2021 season with 2,493 passing yards, which led the MVFC. Schuster also led the conference in completion percentage last season (65.5%) and threw for 13 touchdowns. The junior ranks third in UND program history in career completions (384), passing yards (4,089) and passing touchdowns (24).

4.6: The Fighting Hawks lost five games in FCS play last season by an average of 4.6 points. UND also either had the lead or a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter in all 11 games in 2021. However, Schweigert’s squad lost five games by single digits last season, which was a program first. Sound familiar Nebraska fans?

3: The number of games the Fighting Hawks have won away from the Alerus Center the last three seasons. UND posted a 1-5 record on the road in 2021 and went 1-2 and 1-5 respectively in 2020 and 2019. And speaking of three, UND finished 3-5 in conference play last season.

Press coverage

Tom Miller covers North Dakota for the Grand Forks Herald.

What can Nebraska expect to see out of Tommy Schuster?

TM: Tommy might not exactly pass the eye test for some people. He’s a little undersized and he’s not a running quarterback either, but he’s really precise and he makes up for it. He just puts the ball in the right spots. He doesn’t get sacked and he doesn’t make too many mistakes. He’s been really steady.

How would you assess UND’s defense coming into the 2022 season?

TM: They don’t return their big names off the defense the last couple years, but Bubba Schweigert is a defensive-minded coach – he was a defensive coordinator at UND – and they seem to always rotate and fill the spots. So I don’t think there’s a ton of concern, especially up front. The secondary is going to be pretty unproven and everyone at safety will be new, so that’s the question mark on the defense right now. But I think overall there isn’t much concern with that group.

What are the strengths of this UND team?

TM: I would say their depth for sure. I think this is one of the deepest North Dakota teams that I’ve seen in a while. I don’t think they have a ton of superstars, but I also don’t think there’s a bunch of dead weight on the roster either. And any time an FCS school plays an FBS team the depth is going to be even more important if teams even want to have a shot. But I also think this team’s strength will be an improved offensive line from 2021 and a more capable stable of running backs with Smith, Hoosman and (Gaven) Ziebarth. I think North Dakota will be pretty good at running back this season overall. Now will they find running room against an FBS defense? I don’t know and we’ll find out Saturday.​

What’s the mood around the team and Grand Forks heading into this one?

TM: Regarding the team, I think they’ll come in with a little bit of confidence and they definitely believe. I always joke that North Dakota football fans don’t get nice things as easily as North Dakota State and this fan base maybe has some similarities to Nebraska’s lately. The fans want to get excited about something and then they fall short. So some people in the community are viewing this Nebraska game as they’re getable, whether that means a win or staying within the spread, I’m not sure. But also there’s a lot of people under the umbrella of (Nebraska)’s going to come in pissed off with something to prove.

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