Two weeks from today, fall practice for University of North Dakota football will begin in full, signaling the start of Year #6 of the Bubba Schweigert Era in Grand Forks.
This season will serve as the second phase of a three-year transition for UND, as the program wraps up its time as an FCS Independent – while still playing a Big Sky schedule – before moving into the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.
The team itself is in transition as well. Gone are nearly all the impact players from the 2016 conference title team, including the recently graduated all-star backfield tandem of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira and former All-American cornerback Deion Harris, all of whom are continuing their football careers at the pro level. The coaching staff has a different look as well, with former receivers coach Danny Freund now leading the offense and three new assistants joining the fold.
But while some things will be different in 2019, much remains the same, including the team’s long-standing philosophy to win with an aggressive defense, a ball-control offense and toughness on both sides of the football. With 14 starters and all three specialists back from the team that finished 6-5 and narrowly missed the playoffs last year, UND has reason to be optimistic that a return to the postseason is in reach.
To make that leap, however, they’ll need to navigate what many consider the most difficult schedule in the FCS, a gauntlet that features five teams that made the postseason in 2018 and six ranked in the Athlon Sports preseason poll – including five in the top ten. We’ll have ample opportunity to go in-depth on UND’s squad in the weeks ahead, but for now, let’s look at the schedule that awaits the Fighting Hawks in 2019, beginning with the home opener on August 31.
August 31 vs Drake
4 PM | 2018: 7-4 (6-2, T-2nd Pioneer League)
After four straight years of opening on the road, UND begins their season at the Alerus Center for the second consecutive campaign, this time against a new-look Bulldog side under first-year head coach Todd Sepsis.
The team from Des Moines was competitive last year in the non-scholarship Pioneer League and took a ranked Iowa State squad to the limit in the season finale. They’ll require the Fighting Hawks’ full attention, or we could see a repeat of Drake’s last visit to Grand Forks, a much-tighter-than-expected 21-18 UND win in 2015.
September 7 at #1 North Dakota State
2:30 PM | 2018: 15-0 (8-0, 1st MVFC), FCS National Champion
No, the Nickel Trophy won’t be up for grabs, and no, this isn’t a conference game until next season, but that will do little to diminish the excitement surrounding what’s taking place in Fargo on the first Saturday in September. Even the staunchest UND supporter will begrudgingly recognize how impressive this NDSU run of success has been. After all, the Bison have won seven national titles in the last eight years, notched eight-straight 12-win seasons and are currently riding an active 21-game winning streak. (…Shakes head.)
Still, if you were going to pick a time to play NDSU this decade, 2019 might be the year. Bison Nation is under new management with former defensive coordinator Matt Entz now at the helm, and he’s tasked with replacing 24 influential seniors – including seven starters on defense and eight on offense.
September 14 vs #20 Sam Houston State
4 PM | 2018: 6-5 (5-4, T-4th Southland)
Last September’s 24-23 UND victory in Huntsville had everything you’d want in a college football contest, highlighted by a late-game 4th-and-goal touchdown strike from Nate Ketteringham to Noah Wanzek to seal the Fighting Hawks’ first D-I win over a top-five opponent and double as the team’s play of the season. While that loss was a harbinger of things to come for the Bearkats in 2018 – they’d finish with less than 10 wins for just the second time this decade while missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010 – K.C. Keeler’s squad is poised for a bounce-back campaign in 2019.
Armed with more experience at quarterback and All-American talent at receiver and cornerback, many expect the ‘Kats to return to their usual perch at or near the top of the Southland Conference this fall, making this game in Grand Forks a big one for UND’s playoff résumé.
September 21 – OPEN
The first of two open dates on Bubba Schweigert’s calendar comes at an opportune time, as it’ll allow for rest and recovery before the start of the Big Sky gauntlet.
Note: One talking point that will come up around both of UND’s bye weeks is the school’s decision to play 11 games instead of the NCAA-allowed 12 this year. As there’s an extra Saturday in the calendar between Labor Day and Thanksgiving in 2019, the normal 11-game regular season restrictions have been relaxed, and most teams have taken advantage by adding a fourth non-conference date. However, as they’re already burdened with a schedule ranked by some as the toughest in the FCS, North Dakota chose to forgo that extra game and take a second open week.
September 28 at #4 Eastern Washington
TBA | 2018: 12-3 (7-1, T-1st Big Sky), FCS Runner-up
How long has it been since UND last played on the red turf of Roos Field? For that, you’d have to go back to November of 2014, in a game that doubled as Keaton Studsrud’s first collegiate start and ended in a 54-3 win for the home team.
Despite playing in the same conference, this year’s game will serve as just the second meeting between the two programs since that encounter in Cheney five years ago and only the fourth all-time. UND is still looking for their first victory in the series, and it won’t be easy to come by this time around. The Eags reached the FCS national title game last season and were tabbed by the Big Sky’s coaches and media as the favorites to win the conference again in 2019.
Barring a shocker against D-II Lindenwood in Week #2, EWU will carry a 10-game home winning streak into this contest against the Fighting Hawks.
October 5 vs #5 UC Davis
1 PM | 2018: 10-3 (7-1, T-1st Big Sky), FCS Quarterfinalist
The road doesn’t get easier in October, as UND takes on their second 2018 Big Sky champion in as many weeks with a Homecoming tilt against Dan Hawkins’ Aggies.
After seven straight losing seasons, UC Davis was a top-ten team in 2019, reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history and losing only at Stanford and at Eastern Washington. All-American receiver Keelan Doss has moved on to the NFL, but Preseason Big Sky Offensive MVP Jake Maier is back for his third year under center. Maier had a breakout 415-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Fighting Hawks in 2017, but he’ll face a much healthier defensive unit – knock on wood – at the Alerus this time around.
October 12 at Idaho State
TBA | 2018: 6-5 (5-3, T-4th Big Sky)
Redemption will likely be on North Dakota’s mind when the team travels to Pocatello in Week #7. After all, the 25-21 Potato Bowl loss to ISU last year played a major role in the Fighting Hawks’ 2018 playoff absence, marking the second time in four years that an upset defeat to the Bengals proved costly in the postseason hunt. Rob Phenicie will have to replace long-time starting quarterback Tanner Gueller from an offense that ranked 3rd in the Big Sky in points per game, but all-conference receiver Mitch Gueller’s return helps soften that blow. ISU comes in at #7 in both Big Sky preseason polls.
October 19 at Cal Poly
7:05 PM | 2018: 5-6 (4-4, T-6th Big Sky)
The second of a two consecutive mid-October road games puts UND in San Luis Obispo against their former Great West rival for the first time since the 2015 season finale.
Even though the Mustangs will be starting from scratch personnel-wise on the offensive side of the ball – gone are three-time All-American fullback Joe Protheroe, starting quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and three starters on the offensive line – don’t expect Tim Walsh’s triple-option attack to change anytime soon. UND has won their last two meetings with Cal Poly, though they haven’t played the Mustangs since 2016. CPU was picked to finish 9th in both Big Sky preseason polls.
October 26 vs #8 Montana State
Noon | 2018: 8-5 (5-3, T-4th Big Sky), FCS 2nd RD
After not seeing each other on the schedule last year for the first time since 2011, the once-promising MSU-UND rivalry will get one more hurrah on the last Saturday in October before going back into hiatus for the foreseeable future. The ‘Cats are coming off their best season under fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate after reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they’ve got a realistic shot to make a run at a Big Sky title this time around, especially given their relatively easy conference schedule.
The big question mark for MSU is at quarterback, as former Big Sky Freshman of the Year Chris Murray is no longer with the program after missing all of last season for academic reasons, while last year’s starter – and 1st Team All-Big Sky selection – Troy Andersen is moving back to linebacker this Fall. Yet despite the uncertainty under center, the Bobcats were still picked 4th by the media and 5th by the coaches in this year’s Big Sky preseason polls.
November 2 | OPEN
This second week of rest and recovery also feels like it falls at the right point in the schedule, as it comes not only a month before the playoffs but is also sandwiched between tilts against the two most physically demanding teams in the conference.
November 9 at #9 Weber State
TBA | 2018: 10-3 (7-1, T-1st Big Sky), FCS Quarterfinalist
The stretch run for UND begins with a trip to Ogden for one of the year’s toughest tests and a rematch of one of 2018’s most entertaining games, a 35-30 Weber State win in Grand Forks. After a half-decade of toiling in obscurity, the Wildcats have suddenly become one of the Big Sky’s standard-bearers under Jay Hill, earning back-to-back conference titles and making three straight trips to the FCS playoffs.
Despite graduating a whopping eight 1st Team All-Conference players from 2018, this WSU squad still boasts a league-high seven preseason All-Big Sky selections, including All-American running back Josh Davis, the reigning FCS Freshman of the Year. If junior quarterback Jake Constantine can improve in Year #2 as the starter, the ‘Cats should improve on their Big Sky preseason ranking of 3rd by both the media and coaches.
November 16 vs Northern Colorado
1 PM | 2-9 (2-6, 11th Big Sky)
After a difficult stretch of road games, Bubba Schweigert’s crew gets the benefit of playing their final two regular season contests at home, beginning with a matchup against a familiar rival in UNC. North Dakota has been dominant against the Bears in recent seasons, highlighted by a current five-game winning streak and a 7-1 overall record at the FCS level against the team from Greeley.
The pollsters expect that trend to continue, as UNC has been picked to finish last by both the coaches and media despite finishing ahead of the likes of Southern Utah and Sacramento State in the final 2018 Big Sky standings. The graduation of the Bears’ only all-conference selections – receiver Alex Wesley, tight end Theron Verna and defensive end Keifer Morris – have a lot to do with those low expectations, but things could be different this year with three-time DII Coordinator of the Year finalist Nick Fulton now running the offense.
November 23 vs Southern Utah
1 PM | 1-10 (1-7, 12th Big Sky)
The regular season concludes against a rebuilding Thunderbird team that’s only two years removed from a Big Sky title before earning just one victory in 2018.
Now in his fourth year at the helm in Cedar City, former T-Bird DC Demario Warren has changed defensive coordinators in the hopes of resuscitating a unit that allowed a league-worst 41.5 points per game and ranked second-to-last in the FCS in total defense. UND hammered SUU 45-23 in their last meeting in Grand Forks in 2016, though the Thunderbirds returned the favor 47-21 in Utah a year later to reclaim the all-time series lead at 5-4.
For the eighth year running, MidcoSN is proud to broadcast every Fighting Hawk home game in 2019, and we hope you join us from your living room if you can’t make it to the Alerus Center in person! In addition to our live coverage, we’ll also be following the team from Fall Camp until the year’s final whistle on the second season of our weekly webseries, “Day By Day: Inside Fighting Hawks Football," So if you love UND football, be sure to stay tuned to Midco Sports Network and MidcoSN’s social media platforms throughout the season.