North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert and his Fighting Hawks are a Top-10 FCS program entering the 2017 season. (AP Photo/Patrick Record)
And yes, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks have history on their mind. North Dakota faces a Top 25-ranked FBS opponent for the first time ever Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium when Utah (No. 25 in the preseason coaches’ poll) welcomes one of the premier FCS-level programs to christen the 2017 season.
NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING HAWKS Coach • Bubba Schweigert (fourth season, 21-14 at ND, 42-35 overall as coach) 2016 • 9-3, Big Sky Conference champions Returning firepower • North Dakota returns nine offensive starters from 2016, including quarterback Keaton Studsrud (2,027 yards passing, 19 total touchdowns), running backs John Santiago (983 yards, seven touchdowns) and Brady Oliveira (897 yards, 10 touchdowns). Preseason respect • North Dakota ranked No. 8 in preseason FCS poll and No. 10 in preseason FCS coaches’ poll
The Fighting Hawks of Grand Forks, N.D., who entered the preseason ranked No. 8 in the FCS preseason poll and No. 10 in the FCS coaches’ poll, have Utah’s full attention. For the last two weeks, Kyle Whittingham said, “It’s all been about North Dakota.”
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah is 21-1 in non-conference games, and 15-0 in non-conference matchups the last four seasons. Utah’s lone non-conference loss came in 2012 when Utah State upended the Utes in Logan.
“It’s just our mentality,” Whittingham said. “We don’t ever get ahead of ourselves. I think the guys that have been in our program for several years understand that — learning to focus on what’s in front of you and nothing else. … It’s part of our culture.”
North Dakota at UtahThursday, 5:30 p.m. TV • Pac-12 Network
North Dakota returns nine offensive starters from 2016, including quarterback Keaton Studsrud (2,027 yards passing, 19 total touchdowns), running backs John Santiago (983 yards, seven touchdowns) and Brady Oliveira (897 yards, 10 touchdowns). The Fighting Hawks are a throwback-style offense, Whittingham said.
While Utah is used to facing the usual spread-them-out aerial attacks in the Pac-12, North Dakota is the opposite: A downhill football team that employs an old-school look offensively with a fullback paving the way for the tailbacks behind him. Utah’s greatest defensive strength is stuffing the run, but the Hawks have provided more homework for the Utes’ scout team.