The North Dakota Fighting Hawks are continuing to climb their way up the FCS ladder.
The program moved from Division II to the Great West Conference in 2008 and made another jump up when it joined the Big Sky in 2012. This offseason, the Fighting Hawks announced that they will join the toughest conference at the FCS level—the Missouri Valley Conference—in 2020, which means annual contests will occur against powerhouses like North Dakota Sftate, South Dakota State and Youngstown State in the future.
Until then, the Fighting Hawks will look to keep up their recent solid play against Big Sky opponents.
2016 North Dakota Football Season In Review
Last season was the most successful yet at the FCS level for the Fighting Hawks. They went undefeated in Big Sky play for the first time in their short tenure in the conference and made the playoffs for the first time ever as well.
However, its first postseason appearance had a disappointing end. The Fighting Hawks were the better team for much of the game against Richmond, leading 24-7 at the midpoint of the third quarter. But that’s when everything fell apart.
A running-into-the-kicker penalty gave Richmond a fresh set of downs, which continued a touchdown drive that sparked the comeback. The Spiders ended up winning on a last-second field goal after a deep ball prayer from the backup quarterback was answered.
Despite the tough postseason loss, the Fighting Hawks almost defeated an FBS opponent in 2016, so that shows how much the program has grown. North Dakota was down 27-20 to Bowling Green and scored in the final minute to put fear in the hearts of Falcons fans. Head coach Bubba Schweigert decided to go for two, but the conversion failed to gave BGSU a 27-26 victory.
The running game was the motor for North Dakota’s offense last year. John Santiago and Brady Oliveira shared the duties in the backfield, and both averaged over five yards per carry.
Defensively, the Fighting Hawks were solid last fall. They were the 23rd best team in the FCS in scoring defense.
2017 North Dakota Football Season Preview
North Dakota isn’t going to throw the ball much, but the coaching staff does have a lot of trust in quarterback Keaton Studsrud. Studsrud threw the ball less than 25 times per game last season, averaging under 200 yards an outing. He doesn’t throw interceptions, though, making that mistake just twice in 268 attempts in 2016.
The Fighting Hawks will again rely on their running game. Both Santiago and Oliveira return, and these two will again be asked to carry the load. The offensive line is a good unit and will be able to open up holes for both runners.
Defense should again be the strength of the team. Cole Reyes was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky last season and leads one of the best secondaries in the country. The unit allowed just 2.95 yards per carry in 2016.
2017 North Dakota Football Schedule
August 31: North Dakota at Utah
September 9: North Dakota vs. Missouri State
September 16: North Dakota at South Dakota
September 23: North Dakota vs. Montana State
September 30: North Dakota at UC Davis
October 7: North Dakota vs. Northern Colorado
October 14: North Dakota at Montana
October 21: North Dakota vs. Sacramento State
October 28: North Dakota at Portland State
November 4: North Dakota at Southern Utah
November 11: North Dakota vs. Eastern Washington
FCS Pick ‘Em Games To Watch
North Dakota’s road schedule doesn’t look too daunting outside of a trip to Utah. However, don’t underestimate its visit to South Dakota in the third week of the season. This is an underrated rivalry and the Coyotes almost knocked off the Fighting Hawks on the road last year. South Dakota is a sharp pick for your FCS Pick ‘Em Contests that week.
The Big Sky Conference title will almost assuredly come down to North Dakota’s last game against Eastern Washington. Both teams finished undefeated in conference play last year but didn’t play each other due to the quirks of scheduling. North Dakota’s strengths match up well against Eastern Washington’s, and the Fighting Hawks should be your selection in FCS Pick ‘Em contests.