Nebraska Opponent Spring Review: North Dakota
As Nebraska enters a critical fifth season under head coach Scott Frost in 2022, we decided to look at where things stand with the Huskers’ 12 opponents coming out of spring practices.
Today, we check out North Dakota, which is coming off a 5-6 season in the Missouri Valley Conference. Alex Heinert of Midco Sports gave us his thoughts on the Fighting Hawks going into UND's season opener at Memorial Stadium in Week One.
Three spring storylines to know
1. Used the spring to get healthy
North Dakota, like most FCS teams, used this spring to get healthy. FCS teams played their 2020 season in the spring of 2021. UND played its final game of the 2020 season on May 2 in the FCS playoff quarterfinals.
They had a quick turnaround and started the 2021 season on Sept. 4 with only four months in-between seasons.
So this spring was North Dakota's first 'normal' one since 2019. Heinert said their coaching staff used this spring to get players healthy and had several players that had offseason surgeries. He said a lot of the returning starters didn't participate in the spring due to that.
Some of the starters that were limited and missed the spring were defensive end Jaelen Johnson, linebacker Devon Krzanowski, safety Jayson Coley and running back Luke Skokna.
2. Building back the defense
North Dakota lost seven of their eight leading tacklers from last season from either graduating or transferring. In that group, the Fighting Hawks lost several multi-year starters.
However, their leading tackler, middle linebacker Devon Krzanowski, is returning. In 2021, Krzanowski had 68 tackles, five tackles for a loss of 17 yards and 1.5 sacks.
With several starters out this spring, Heinert said UND's defensive coordinator Brent Holinka used the spring to get some younger players experience.
North Dakota will have a different-looking defense with a lot of big shoes to fill.
3. Reestablishing the run game
The Fighting Hawks starting running back and the backbone of its running game, Otis Weah is transferring from the program. Weah was a 2021 FCS All-American second-team selection by Phil Steele.
Heinert said while the team wasn't completely focused on its running back this spring with many players focusing on getting fully healthy, the running game is something they will have to reestablish.
North Dakota ranked No. 35 in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Weah averaged 5.1 yards per carry on his 844 total rushing yards and 159 attempts.
Running back Isaiah Smith has the most experience of the running backs with 362 yards and 52 attempts as a redshirt freshman in 2021. Skokna, who was limited this spring, had 35 carries and 237 rushing yards last season.
Early outlook on Nebraska vs. North Dakota
Heinert: "My first impression is that this is a game that North Dakota is going to be excited about. Anytime you get a chance to play in FBS school, and not just any FBS school, but you know, one of the top programs historically in college football, there's going to be excitement around that. It's a season opener, there's excitement around that as well.
"I know North Dakota will look at some of the "success" it seemed like South Dakota State had against Nebraska a handful of years ago when they gave the Cornhuskers a good game down in Lincoln, and maybe look at their own standing in a similar position as SDSU and think we can go down there and give that team a football game.
"I know there's a long ways to go between now and then but I think that's this is obviously a game where they will not be favored in but I think deep down they'll look at what they did last year against Utah State, who's obviously not the type of program that Nebraska is, but they went to Utah State, North Dakota did, last year and were up big in that contest in the first half and then let things slip away in the second half. So they've had decent run ins against good FBS schools. They played Washington close a handful of years ago.
"They won't go into this game with eyes wide open. I don't think the occasion will be too big for them from the start based on the guys that they've got coming back in key positions. But certainly, this is a big test to go to Lincoln and to go to Memorial Stadium to have success against that program. It'll be one they'll be excited about for sure. But a big test Yes."
2022 win-loss expectation for North Dakota
Heinert: "I think they go 7-4 as I add all this up on their 11 game schedule. I think they'll have a winning record this year. They have a quarterback coming back who's got two-plus years of starting experience, a lot of leaders back in skilled positions on offense that they'll look to.
"They have a really solid coaching staff that has now been there for a long time, almost roughly a decade. I think this is Bubba Schweigert's ninth year as the head coach. And most of his assistants have been there for most of that time. So they've got a good solid culture. And this is a winning football team.
"They were 5-6 last year, but every one of their losses in the conference was by a touchdown or less and they were all one-score games that came right down to the wire. They just had a tough time finishing.
"Their schedule is difficult but they play in the best FCS conference in the country, the Missouri Valley Football Conference. But they get a lot of their toughest teams at home, which helps in some of their road teams aren't quite as strong. So I think realistically, they should be in that 8-3, 7-4 range and competing again, for an FCS playoff spot come the season's end."