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Utah State Opponent Preview: North Dakota

An in Depth Look at Utah State’s Home Opener

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

This is a series of in depth looks at the opponents the Utah State football team will be facing this season. The series will use Athlon Sports Top 130 pre-season rankings to consider where opponents are at on a national level and each week will preview a different opponent.

Week 2: North Dakota (September 10th)

Record in 2020: 5-2 (4-1)

Record in 2019: 7-5 (5-3)

Record vs USU: First meeting

Athlon Ranking: 7 (FCS Preseason Top 25)

Key Losses: Bo Belqusit (receiver), Jake Ritcher (receiver).

Key Players Back: Tommy Schuster (quarterback), Otis Weah (running back), Luke Skokna (running back), Garett Maag (receiver), Devon Krzanowski (linebacker), Noah Larson (linebacker), Hayden Galvin (defensive back), Jordan Canady (defensive back).

Offensive Preview

During the Spring 2021 season, North Dakota was actually quite good offensively. Quarterback Tommy Schuster threw 197 passes and completed 129 of those passes (65.5% completion rate) in addition to throwing for 1428 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 204 yards per game. Otis Weah led the team in rushing, going for 735 yards and nine touchdowns on 102 attempts. Running back Luke Skokna went for 387 yards and four touchdowns on 68 attempts. Receiver Garett Maag had 525 yards with two touchdowns and Marcus Preston had 112 yards. One name on the offense that will be key to keep an eye on is receiver Adam Zavalney, who went for 99 yards and caught three touchdowns.

Overall, North Dakota ranked 26th (there are 125 total FCS teams) in the FCS in total offense, averaging 6.11 yards per play, scoring 26 offensive touchdowns, and averaging 395.1 yards per game. The Fighting Hawks ranked 17th in 3rd down conversions, converting 39 of their 87 attempts (44.8%), 44th in passing offense (210.3 yards per game), and 17th in rushing offense (184.9 yards per game). North Dakota ranked 24th in first down offense, converting 141 total first downs, and 18th in scoring offense, scoring 29.9 points per game. In terms of turnovers, the Fighting Hawks gave up nine turnovers (four fumbles, five interceptions), which tied for 47th in the nation.

North Dakota was able to deliver offensively in their wins, their lowest score for a win being 21 points and their highest being 44 points. One area that North Dakota will need to improve in if they want to stay competitive with teams such as North Dakota State and James Madison is in passing yards. With more explosive plays, that passing yards number can go up and with the return of a more experienced quarterback this season, odds are there could be more consistency.

Defensive Preview

Linebacker Devon Krzanowski led the team in tackles by a significant margin last season and returns this season. He had 51 total tackles (21 solo, 30 assist), three sacks, and also registered an interception and two fumble recoveries. Fellow linebacker Noah Larson also returns after posting 38 tackles (14 solo, 24 assist), 6 tackles for loss, three sacks, and a fumble recovery. Defensive back Hayden Galvin had 30 tackles (13 solo, 17 assist), two interceptions, and a quarterback hit. Another defensive back also returns in Jordan Canady, who had 24 tackles (14 solo, 10 assist), two interceptions, and a quarterback hit. One name to keep an eye on is defensive back Evan Holm, who had 19 tackles (14 solo, five assist). He also had an interception and led the team in pass breakups with seven. Another name to keep an eye on is linebacker Jaxson Turner, who had 29 tackles (18 solo, 11 assist), a forced fumble, and led the team in sacks with five.

Overall, the Fighting Hawks ranked 50th in total defense, allowing 361 yards per game, 21 points per game, 5.39 yards per play, and 18 touchdowns on the season. North Dakota ranked 63rd in third down defense as opponents converted 40 of 96 attempted third downs (41.7%), 63rd in passing yards allowed, allowing 223.6 yards per game (7.15 yards per attempt), 42nd in rushing yards allowed, with 137.4 yards per game (3.85 yards per carry), and tied for 10th in turnovers gained, forcing eight interceptions and seven fumbles for a total of 15 turnovers.

The defense brings back some important play makers from last season in addition to bringing in new faces that should help to allow the passing and rushing defense. The defense will also need to be more consistent in stopping opponents on third downs to get the offense back on the field with more opportunities. Turnovers were a bright spot during North Dakota’s season and in order to make it back to the FCS Playoffs, the Fighting Hawks will need to continue to force turnovers and hold on to the ball on offense.

Consensus

North Dakota is in the FCS, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken lightly because they have had success. Utah State will be coming off a game against Washington State and will have a game against Air Force after this one. The Aggies need to be careful to not look ahead to Air Force but I would expect the offense to figure more things out against the Fighting Hawks. It could be close in the first half, but I would expect Utah State to pull away in the second half as they settle into the game.