(STATS) - Nearing the halfway point of the conference slate, Southern Utah is in the mix to defend its Big Sky title. Slightly concerning, however, is its league wins have come at home over a pair of struggling programs while it was blown out on the road in its only matchup with a STATS Top 25 team.
The Thunderbirds again find themselves on the road against a ranked team Saturday when they face No. 22 North Dakota, which is looking to win five straight games for the first time since moving to Division I in 2008.
A defense led by NFL-bound James Cowser, Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims carried Southern Utah to its first Big Sky title a year ago. The Thunderbirds' offense was no slouch, either, averaging 35.4 points and 445 yards. This season, under first-year coach Demario Warren - the defensive coordinator from the past two seasons - the defense is again leading the way but the offense has been a major liability.
Southern Utah (3-2, 2-1) is last in the Big Sky in yards (338.8 per game) and second-to-last in scoring (23.4), and behind JUCO-transfer QB Patrick Tyler, the offense just isn't able to find any rhythm or sustain long drives. It is converting 24.6 percent of its third downs, ninth-worst out of the 125 FCS schools, and its average of 25:20 in time of possession is fifth-worst.
Tyler, who is completing 54.3 percent of his passes, is averaging 195 passing yards in four starts - a pretty substantial dropoff in production from a year ago when Ammon Olsen averaged 278.7 yards passing.
"We feel confident that Patrick is the guy that can help us win games," Warren said.
The run game, however, is still thriving behind senior Malik Brown, who is second in the Big Sky in rushing (540 yards) and average (6.3 per attempt) among those with at least 50 carries.
Brown and the rest of the offense, however, didn't get much going against overmatched UC Davis last weekend. The Thunderbirds gained 260 yards - their fewest in a conference game since 2013 - but scored TDs on both first-half trips inside the red zone and didn't turn the ball over in 24-3 win
"Our offense did their part in those areas and there are some other areas we want to improve at for sure," Warren said. "But as long as we're great at situational football, we'll give ourselves a chance to win at the end of the game."
The Thunderbirds' two Big Sky victories have come against teams that are a combined 3-9 while their conference loss came at then-No. 11 Montana on Oct. 1.
Southern Utah's scuffling offense will face its greatest test of the season when it visits the Alerus Center, where the Fighting Hawks (4-2, 3-0) have won four in a row and are 10-3 under coach Bubba Schweigert.
North Dakota, which defeated then-No. 16 Cal Poly in its last home game on Oct. 1, is 3-0 in conference play for the first time since joining the Big Sky in 2012 and coming off its most emphatic victory of the season. The Fighting Hawks racked up 625 yards, including 422 on the ground, while holding Sacramento State to 272 in a 40-7 win - the program's largest margin of victory against a Big Sky foe.
All five of UND's touchdowns came on the ground and the team had three 100-yard rushers, with Brady Oliveira gaining 111, Austin Gordon at 102 and quarterback Keaton Studsrud with 100. John Santiago, named to the 2015 STATS All-American second team, was cleared to play just before kickoff after injuring his leg on the game's second play against Cal Poly, and ran for 76 yards on just eight attempts.
The Fighting Hawks are third in the league in rushing, averaging 216 yards, and are just as strong against the run. They rank second in the Big Sky, allowing an average of 125.3 yards and 3.3 per rush.
"I really like the plan our defensive staff puts together. Our guys understand the plan and we've been able to limit big plays," Schweigert said. "A big key to our defensive effort has been our offense being able to control the football and that's really helped us."
Powered by its stellar ground game, North Dakota leads the Big Sky in time of possession at 32:54.
With Santiago a little banged-up, Oliveira has stepped up, totaling 409 yards rushing with a 6.8 yard average in the last three games. Oliveira ranks sixth in the league in rushing yards per game at 84.8 and Santiago is eighth at 73.8, giving the Fighting Hawks the only pair of teammates in the Big Sky that are in the top 10.
"We've been pleased with our tailbacks," Schweigert said. "The big challenge for us is how do we get them into space and get them some room to run."