North Dakota Fighting Hawks (7-4, Independent) at Nichols State (8-4, 7-2)
Where: Manning Field at John L. Guidry Stadium, Thibodaux, La.
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 3 PM.
TV/Streaming: ESPN3 (cable subscription req’d)
November 27, 2019
Perhaps no other matchup in this year’s opening round of the FCS playoffs pits two teams with such a varying discrepancy in terms of history and achievement in the sport of football. But, in the end, history will be made for one team as the sun sets on the day after North Dakota and Nicholls State meet for the first time in the history of the two schools.
Grover Cleveland was occupying the White House when UND began playing intercollegiate football in 1894, just five years after North Dakota was granted statehood. The school would later become one of nine charter members of the North Central Conference in 1922. During its long membership in the conference, UND claimed 26 conference titles, including the Division II national championship in 2001, the only national title in school history.
UND left the NCC following the 2007 season after announcing its transition to Division 1 and competing in Great West Conference (2008-11) before joining the Big Sky Conference. The school is competing as an independent this season and will join the Missouri Valley Football Conference for the 2020 season.
This is UND’s second appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Fighting Hawks lost to Richmond 27-24 in their previous appearance in 2015.
Nicholls State, which began playing football in 1972, just months before Richard Nixon was elected to his second, albeit short term this time around, as president, and is making an appearance in the FCS playoffs for the sixth time in school history.
The Colonels first appeared in 1986 and defeated Appalachian State 28-26 before seeing their season come to an end the following week in a 55-31 loss to Georgia Southern. The advanced to the quarterfinal round last season by defeating San Diego 49-30 and losing to Eastern Washington 42-21. EWU went on to play in the national championship game.
Nicholls’ other FCS playoff appearances came in 1996, 2005 and 2017.
The Colonels were members of the NCAA Division II Gulf South Conference (1972-78) and won the conference championship in 1975. They played as an independent in Division II in 1979 and four seasons (1980-83) after moving to Division 1. Nicholls joined the Southland Conference prior to the start of the 1991 season and have won or shared the Southland Conference crown three times, including this season.
The 2019 Season: North Dakota had an up and down season in terms of wins and losses and struggled to win on the road. The Fighting Hawks downed Pioneer Football League-member Drake 47-7 in the season opener on Aug. 31. That triumph was offset by a 31-7 loss at North Dakota State the following weekend.
UND split the next two games, losing at Eastern Washington and winning at home against UC Davis. The Fighting Hawks earned what turned out to be their only road win of the season in their next game at Cal Poly and downed Montana State at home 16-12. That was followed by, you guessed it, a road loss at Weber State. A two-game winning streak to end the season, both at hope was likely that catalyst to get UND into the playoffs.
Nicholls State finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak. The Colonels defeated Southeastern Louisiana 28-27 in the regular-season finale in the River Bell Classic. That win gave the Colonels the Southland Conference’s automatic bid into the playoffs. Southeastern Louisiana also made the playoff field and will entertain Villanova in the first round on Saturday.
NSU opened the season with a 49-14 loss on Aug. 31 at Kansas State. Then came a stretch where the Colonels won four of their next five games to improve to 4-2 on the year. That stumbled to .500 with back-to-back losses to Sam Houston State and at home against Abilene Christian (37-31) in overtime.
The Coaches: Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert is in his sixth season as head coach at North Dakota and has compiled a 37-34 record at the school leading into this weekend’s game. He previously coached at Minnesota-Duluth (2004-07) and led the Bulldogs to a 22-21 record during his time along the shores of Lake Superior. Schweigert later served as an assistant coach at Southern Illinois (2008-13) before returning to UND where he was an assistant at (1989-2003). During that time, UND won six NCC titles and made eight NCAA Division II playoff appearances, including the 2001 national championship.
Schweigert began his collegiate coaching career at Jamestown (N.D.) University (1985-88). The 27th head coach in UND history, Schweigert has an overall head coaching mark is 59-55.
Nicholls State coach Tim Rebowe is in his fifth season as head coach at the school. He currently sports a record of 33-26 (.559) heading into Saturday’s contest. A graduate of LSU, Rebowe began his collegiate coaching career at Nicholls State and spent six seasons (1995-2000) as an assistant for the Colonels. He was an assistant at Louisiana-Monroe (2001-14), before returning to Nicholls prior to the start of the 2015 season as the 10th head coach in school history.
The Colonels have improved their record each season under Rebowe. His 2015 finished 3-8 overall and climbed to 5-6 the following season. All five wins came in Southland Conference play and gave the Colonels their first winning season in conference competition since 2005. NSU was 8-4 in 20016 and finished 9-4 a year ago after falling to Eastern Washington in the second round of the national playoffs.
Common opponent: UND and Nicholls State share one common opponent this season. The Fighting Hawks defeated Sam Houston State 27-23 in Grand Forks on Sept. 14. The Colonels lost to the BearKats 17-0 on Oct. 19 in Huntsville.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
The University of North Dakota has one of top pilot training schools in the nation so it’s fitting the Fighting Hawks like going to the air. Don’t expect them to not keep that trend alive against the Colonels.
UND averages 261.2 passing yards per game this season and notches just 128.9 yards on the ground.
The Fighting Hawks average 28.5 points per game, while allowing a tad more (28.9). They also are proficient in the red zone, scoring 25 touchdowns in 34 trips inside that area.
The UND offensive line gives up more than two sacks per contest as opposing defenses have corralled the quarterback 27 times in 11 games.
On defense, UND is allowing respectable and comparable numbers. Opponents have averaged 181.5 yards a game on the ground and 205.5 yards through the air.
Key players: Nate Ketteringham, a 6-4, 203-pound, quarterback has returned after an injury early in the season and played a crucial roll down the stretch as UND worked its way in the playoffs. Ketteringham, a redshirt senior, has completed 218 of 335 passes for 2,343 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Fighting Hawks. He has also tossed nine interceptions in the nine games he has appeared in.
Ketteringham’s favorite target has been wide receiver Noah Wanzek (6-4, 210). And why not? One of the top pass catchers in the nation last season, Wanzek has continued to put up outstanding numbers. He has caught 67 passes for 935 yards and four touchdowns in his final collegiate season.
Numbers drop after Wanzek, but the Fighting Hawks still have two capable receivers to help remove some of the attention placed on the UND star. Garrett Maag (6-4, 206) is just a sophomore, but has hauled in 56 passes for 591 yards and one touchdown. Teammate Travis Toivonen (6-4, 212) is not far behind with 563 yards on 38 receptions and a team-high seven touchdowns in his final season. Alex Cloyo (6-4, 251) has chipped in with eight catches for 63 yards and three touchdowns of his own. Cloyo is a senior.
The UND defense is paced by a trio of standouts. Senior linebacker Donnell Rodgers (6-1, 238) has tallied a team-best 123 (50 solo) tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He has also posted three pass breakups, two hurries and has picked one pass this season. He has added three forced fumbles.
Jordan Canady (6-0, 205), a defensive back, has 78 (46 solo) tackles this year for the Fighting Hawks. He has intercepted one pass and broken up three other aerial attempts and forced one fumble. Noah Larson (6-2, 238) has shined as a redshirt freshman. He has 78 (25 solo) tackles and two interceptions from his linebacker position. He has forced one fumble and recovered another.
If Nicholls is to fulfill the goal advancing beyond the second round for the first time in program history, the reward from winning this weekend would be a trip to North Dakota State tasked with taking down the top-ranked Bison, winners of 124 of their last 132 games and seven of the last eight national championships.
Hey, anything’s possible. You gotta believe.
Nicholls’ offense is largely two-dimensional, with a slightly greater reliance on the passing game. The Colonels are averaging 188.2 yards per game on the ground this season, while passing for 228.2 yards per game. The Colonels average 416.5 yards per game.
The offense is also efficient. Nicholls has scored touchdowns on 34 of 45 trips inside the red zone and averages 29.5 points per game.
If there is one area of concern for the Colonels on the offensive side of the ball, it might be the offensive line. NSU has allowed 25 quarterback sacks this season.
The Nicholls State defense is limiting opponents to just 141.4 rushing yards this season, but 269.8 yards per game through the air. That might be problematic against the Fighting Hawks.
Key players: QB Chase Fourcade, who is among the candidates for this year’s Walter Payton Award. is one of those do-anything type of players.
The reigning Southland Conference’s offensive player of the year, Fourcade, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior, enters Saturday’s game with some very impressive numbers. He has completed better than 66 percent of his passes (202-304) this season for 2,720 yards and 15 touchdowns. He became Nicholls’ all-time career passing leader during last year’s playoff loss to Eastern Washington. His yardage total this season gives him 10,390 for his career heading into Saturday’s game against the Fighting Hawks.
Fourcade, who earned freshman All-American honors in 2016 and finished sixth in the voting for the Jerry Rice award that same season, added 561 rushing yards this season on 142 carries (4.0 ypc) and scored 11 times. His rushing output ranks No. 2 on the Colonels’ roster on the year.
Fourcade is the son of journeyman quarterback, John Fourcade, who saw stints in the CFL, USFL, Arena Football League, and later spent stints with the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints of the NFL after his collegiate career at Ole Miss. The elder Fourcade passed for 6,713 yards while at Ole Miss (1978-81) to surpass the record held by Archie Manning. He was later voted the MVP of the 1982 Senior Bowl.
Julien Gums (5-10, 230) is the leading ground-gainer and should reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the season early in Saturday’s game. He enters the contest with 983 yards on 183 carries (5.4 ypc) and has run for a team-high 16 touchdowns in his sophomore season.
Dai’Jean Dixon (6-4, 200) and Dion Ray (6-0, 215), both seniors, are both healthy and provide Fourcade with a pair of talented wide receivers to throw to. Dixon missed several games this season because of injury before returning last week for the regular-season finale against Southeast Louisiana. He has totaled 92 catches for 856 yards and six TDS in just seven games. Ray, meanwhile, has been appeared in eight games after battling injury issues of his own. He has 29 catches for 575 yards. Ray is also expected to be at full strength for the game against the Fighting Hawks.
Tight end Jordan Talley (6-3, 245), another senior, has played in 11 games and has just 10 catches for 88 yards. But, three of those receptions have gone for touchdowns.
The Colonels also have plenty talent on the defensive side of the ball. That could prove beneficial as Nicholls looks to extend its season for another week.
Kevin Moore, a six-foot, 205-pound defensive back, is the team’s top tackler with 102 (60 solo) total tackles. The junior has also forced three fumbles and has two pass breakups to his credit this year. Senior linebacker Laryon James (5-11, 220) is not far behind with 88 (46 solo) tackles of his own. Included in that total are six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two quarterback hurries. He has also intercepted one pass, forced one fumble and recovered another.
Sully Laiche (6-2, 270), a defensive lineman, is far and away the team leader in TFLs with 19 as part of his 54 (35 solo) tackles this season and a team-high 10 sacks. He has forced three fumbles already this season.
Prediction: Championship football can only be achieved with success away from home and North Dakota has proven its struggles in that department. Nicholls 28, North Dakota 24
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A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.