After seemingly months of waiting for college football to finally kick off, the opening three weeks of the 2019 season have already come and gone for the University of North Dakota, with Bubba Schweigert’s team reaching the first of two open weeks on the year with a 2-1 record and hopes of a playoff-caliber campaign still firmly intact.
While it’s good to remember that narratives can change over the course of the marathon that is CFB season, it’s also important to evaluate progress at different junctures in the year, and with “non-conference” play wrapped and no game looming on Saturday, what better time than now?
Let’s dig in to some of the key talking points from UND’s opening three contests, beginning with the storyline that’s affecting this young season the most.
Quarterback: A Brighter Present (and Future)
Credible football minds will tell you that the quarterback is the single most important position on any team. It’s not a debate at this point; you need someone serviceable under center, or your squad’s not going to be very successful.
With that in mind, you can see why injuries to both UND’s starting quarterback and their back-up in the opening three games of the year would be cause for concern bordering panic.
(For further reference on the matter, see “Jets, New York.”)
But instead of folding minus top signal-callers Nate Ketteringham and Andrew Zimmerman, the Fighting Hawks’ offense generated enough points and helped control the clock en route to a priceless 27-23 win against a ranked Sam Houston State team in Week #3, and the quarterback play of true freshman Tommy Schuster was a big part of that success.
Schuster might not’ve been UND’s first choice as the quarterback of the future – see Tom Miller’s story in the Grand Forks Herald for details – but North Dakota fans should start warming up to the idea after seeing him on display against the Bearkats. Outside of one forced throw that resulted in an interception, there wasn’t much fault to find in the Michigan native’s first collegiate outing.
That’s positive news moving forward, especially as Ketteringham and Zimmerman are in their final season of eligibility, and there isn’t another quarterback in the pipeline outside of JUCO transfer Noah Grover.
UND doesn’t have a quarterback verbally committed (yet) for their 2020 recruiting class, but if/when that happens – or if an FBS transfer arrives in the spring – Schuster’s performance against the Kats and the coaching staff’s trust in him means he’ll likely be the favorite to take over as North Dakota’s starter in 2020 and beyond…
…Assuming, of course, that he doesn’t join Ketteringham and Zimmerman on the injury table. (Knock on wood.)
Note: Ketteringham is likely to return sooner rather than later, so barring a set-back, Schuster’s participation is likely to remain within the four-game freshman limit to preserve a season of eligibility.
Offensive Questions Answered
One of the big offseason questions regarding UND’s 2019 campaign revolved around Danny Freund’s revamped offense.
How different would it be from previous offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph’s teams of the last five years? And how would these changes work with essentially the same personnel?
After three games, a few things are clear regarding the former quarterback-turned-OC’s plan of attack:
- Passing is the new rushing. UND has thrown the ball 106 times this year compared to 84 rushing attempts, essentially a 55%-45% pass-run split. For context, the Fighting Hawks ran a whopping 62% of the time in 2018. Even though this year’s sample size is relatively small, the early returns confirm the major shift in offensive philosophy under Freund, and so far, it’s helped North Dakota to a 2-1 record.
- But the run game still needs to perform better. If there’s an area of the offense that needs improving, it’s on the ground. UND is only averaging 98 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per attempt, a far cry from the 5.1 they put up in 2018 or even the 4.9 from the injury-plagued 2017 campaign.The last time North Dakota was this inefficient (by the numbers) in the run game was in Bubba Schweigert’s first season at the helm, when they put up 3.2 yards per carry and finished the year 5-7. One similarity between that year’s squad and the 2019 edition of UND football? All-everything running backs John Santiago and Brady Oliveira weren’t on either team. (FYI: Those two were good. Real good.)
- Matchups still make a difference.With that said, there’s no reason to panic about the running game just yet. Drake was a top-ten defense against the run in the FCS in 2018. NDSU is NDSU; Big Ten schools don’t run the ball consistently against that team. Meanwhile, Sam Houston State featured two impressive FBS drop-downs at defensive tackle and a pair of all-conference middle linebackers behind them. Instead of trying to go through the front door against these teams, UND has worked the edges – especially in the short passing game – and has taken shots downfield against man coverage early and often. And even though the run game has been limited, the offense has still shown the ability to move the football consistently, and that’s no mean feat given the rotating door under center.
- Danny’s not afraid. Any team that runs two reverse flea-flickers in the opening three weeks of the season isn’t shy about trying the unusual. Freund also had no issue letting a true freshman throw deep consistently against a ranked team in a tight game; he’s got a lot of trust in his guys, and that’s been on display from the moment he started calling the plays.
What Defensive Line Concerns?
The defensive front of UND’s 3-4 scheme entered 2019 as the supposed weak point of an otherwise strong unit. Outside of All-American candidate Mason Bennett on the edge, the rest of the group was young, unproven and under-sized, three attributes you don’t want in the trenches.
But after three games, all that preseason concern seems almost laughable now.
Bennett’s senior season has begun as you’d expect – despite drawing double-teams, he’s still been a disruptive force as a pass rusher and has 1.5 sacks and 12 tackles to this point – but his numbers have been matched by sophomore nose tackle Jalen Morrison, a high school fullback who’s more than held his own in his first year as a starter.
Morrison and freshman defensive end Jaelen Johnson were both singled out by defensive coordinator – and defensive line coach – Eric Schmidt as players that had impressed him so far, with Johnson making the most of the attention Bennett draws on the opposite side of the line. (If you’re not familiar with Johnson’s story, he’s featured in this week’s episode of “Day By Day.” Check it out on MidcoSN’s YouTube.)
Depth hasn’t been a problem either, as sophomores Graham DeVore – who was this team’s starting fullback a year ago – and Quintin Seguin have combined for a pair of quarterback hurries and multiple tackles for loss, while freshman Griffin Lickfeldt has done a solid job in relief on the inside.
And while the defensive line has only accounted for three of the team’s 12 sacks so far, they’ve more than freed up the linebacking corps to make plays in the backfield on a regular basis.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the line’s play this year is that they’re almost certain to improve, as outside of Bennett, everyone on the two-deep is an underclassmen.
In other words, don’t count on the D-line getting singled out as an area of weakness in the summers ahead.
Still Building, But Building The Right Way
Lastly, the first three weeks of the season have shown that UND still has room to improve as a program before they can be considered a national title contender.
As hard as it to swallow for some, the loss at North Dakota State was a reminder that the nation’s elite teams still have more talent and more depth than the Fighting Hawks do at this point. That’s not to say UND can’t compete with or beat those teams on any given Saturday, but to quote Bubba Schweigert, “The scoreboard tells you how you feel,” and that 38-7 loss left many feeling the weight of just how much work is left to be done to be on par with the FCS’s top-ranked squads.
With that said, the following week’s win against No. 24 Sam Houston State – behind a quarterback who began the season at No. 4 on the depth chart – confirmed hopes that this version of North Dakota could absolutely make a run to the playoffs…and might even make a little noise when they get there.
The key word in that last sentence? Hope. That’s a feeling UND fans should have in abundance right now, even as the team continues a difficult stretch of games against top-five opposition.
All these evaluations could change in a hurry, of course. After all, football – and sports in general – have a habit of flipping the script from time to time.
But that’s all in the future. For now, let’s just enjoy what’s transpired over the last three weeks and get excited for the potential of what’s ahead for North Dakota football.