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UND, USD stepping into the limelight

(STATS) – Success is so cyclical that all teams – even the ones that usually struggle to win games – will find their moments in the spotlight.

For some teams, though, no matter how much they accomplish, they don’t necessarily get their just due. It’s not easy when Big Brother is nearby and casting a shadow.

In the FCS, it’s particularly evident along Interstate 29 up in the Dakotas. North Dakota has the most difficult job of all in trying to gain attention with five-time reigning FCS champion North Dakota State located about 75 miles downstate. South Dakota also always seems to be trying to keep up with South Dakota State, which is about 115 miles to the north.

Each of the two pairings form a longtime rivalry, but NDSU and SDSU got a jump on the FCS over UND and USD, respectively, by leaving Division II football behind in 2004 as opposed to four years later. The now-defunct Great West Conference was a great landing spot for all four, but the year UND and USD entered – 2008 – was when NDSU and SDSU left for the Missouri Valley Football Conference. It wasn’t until 2012 that USD began to play in the Valley, and UND joined the Big Sky Conference.

This year, North Dakota could be one of the biggest breakout teams in the FCS, although it may not be enough to draw attention away from NDSU. UND began last season without a school nickname (having retired Fighting Sioux in 2012), but by season’s end, they were the Fighting Hawks and had a 7-4 record, also named by the NCAA as one of the last two teams – along with Towson – left out of the FCS playoff field.

That dejection in Grand Forks has fueled UND throughout the offseason, and coach Bubba Schweigert’s team has worked to develop its overall depth.

“When we were able to take a step back and look at what we needed to do in order to get us closer to a Big Sky championship and spot in the playoff field, it was developing more depth across the board,” Schweigert said. “We felt like injuries in the secondary, at quarterback and at wide receiver affected our season. We just need to become deeper in all areas.”

The Fighting Hawks, 7-2 last season when quarterback Keaton Studsrud started or took a majority of the snaps, will feature sophomore John Santiago, who last year became the first true freshman to lead the Big Sky in rushing, with Wyoming transfer Oscar Nevermann and redshirt freshman Austin Gordon bolstering the run game. The key will be getting the offensive line to jell quickly after it lost all but one starter, junior A.J. Stockwell.

Like UND, South Dakota has a football history that dates to the late 1800s. The Coyotes are somewhat of a dark horse in the FCS’ strongest conference, the Missouri Valley. First-year coach Bob Nielson followed that type of storyline last season in lifting Western Illinois to its first winning record and playoff berth since 2010.

He and his staff have spent the offseason installing new offensive and defensive systems in Vermillion. The Coyotes provided a sign of what they could be last year when during a 5-6 campaign they went to the Fargodome and stunned North Dakota State, 24-21, on Miles Bergner’s game-ending field goal.

That mix returns nine starters on offense and four on defense. Quarterback Ryan Saeger and running backs Michael Fredrick and Trevor Bouma will help lead the offense, while the defense gets back linebacker John Wessel and strong safety Jacob Warner, who ranked third and fourth, respectively, in tackles.

“We have to define ourselves as a football team,” Nielson said. “That means doing every little thing right. There’s 11 guys, every snap, that have 11 responsibilities. If all 11 guys execute that responsibility, we’re gonna win.”

North Dakota will host South Dakota on Sept. 17 – their first meeting in five years.

That game will draw attention, of course.

But both programs seek so much more this year.

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