It's a tough football team, physical, that won a bunch of games last year and has got just about everybody back. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. Utah’s opponent Thursday (5:30 p.m./Pac-12 Network) at Rice-Eccles Stadium is not the same school that has dominated FCS football for much of the past decade. That would be North Dakota State, a school of 14,500 students located in Fargo, which has won 13 national titles, including five straight from 2011-15.
Utah’s opponent is North Dakota, a school of 14,000 located in Grand Forks, 80 miles north of Fargo, which plays in the Big Sky Conference with Weber State and Southern Utah.
Still, the North Dakota team that the Utes will face Thursday is certainly no pushover. The Fighting Hawks are the defending Big Sky champions, who are picked to win the league again this year with the majority of their starters back and also ranked in the preseason Top 10 in FCS.
So if the Utes were looking for a patsy to open the 2017 season, they aren’t getting one in North Dakota.
“It’s a tough football team, physical, that won a bunch of games last year and has got just about everybody back,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. “They’re a quality football team and we by no means have our focus anywhere but on them. That’s been the case all through fall camp — it was all about North Dakota.”
North Dakota has been a Division I program for just 10 years after 110 seasons as a Division II school, and this marks the first time it has played a ranked FBS team.
The Fighting Hawks are ranked No. 8 in the preseason FCS poll, coming off a 9-3 season and a share of the Big Sky championship. After winning nine straight games, they lost 27-24 to Richmond in the FCS playoffs.
The team returns most of its top players on offense, including quarterback Keaton Studsrud (2,027 yards, 14 TDs), leading rushers John Santiago (983 yards, 7 TDs and Brady Oliveira (897 yards, 10 TDs) as well as its top four receivers, Travis Toivonen (39 catches, 3 TDs), De’mun Mercer (28, 4), Luke Stanley (26, 2) and Noah Wanzel (25, 3).
Defensively, All-American safety Cole Reyes is the top returner. He was second on the team in tackles last year with 70 and also had six tackles for loss and three interceptions. He is a preseason All-American and the pick as the Big Sky preseason defensive player of the year.
Other top players on defense include linebacker Jake Disterhaupt, noseguard Tank Harris, defensive end Brandon Dranka and cornerback Torry Hunt. UND has led the Big Sky in run defense for three straight years and was sixth in the FCS last year, yielding just 91.3 ypg.
The Fighting Hawks also return kicker Reid Taubenheim, who has made 45 career field goals and punter Austin Dussold, who averaged 42.1 yards per punt last year.
“We know going to a program such as Utah, a top-25 FBS-ranked opponent, they’re going to have a lot of talent,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. “They’re well-coached, so it’s a real opportunity for us to test ourselves, and that’s the way we’re going to look at it. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, about 50,000 people in a stadium that’s loud and creates some more challenges for you.”
GAME NOTES: This will mark the first-ever football meeting between the two schools, who played in basketball in Salt Lake in 2014. Thirteen of North Dakota’s starters hail from Minnesota, just across the border from Grand Forks. In 2015, UND defeated Wyoming 24-15 in its opener, the program’s first win over an FBS opponent. Last year, a comeback fell short in a 27-26 loss to Bowling Green. North Dakota will return to Utah on Nov. 4 for a game against Southern Utah in Cedar City. This marks North Dakota’s last season in the Big Sky as it will move to the Missouri Valley Conference for football and to the Summit League for all other sports.