Weber St., UND look to stay unbeaten in Big Sky
The Big Sky is routinely considered one of the stronger conferences in the FCS, and this year is no exception.
It has four programs in the STATS FCS Top 25, with No. 17 North Dakota rounding out the ranked teams.
The Fighting Hawks are one of three undefeated teams in league play and they face another of the unbeatens on Saturday. Their opponent, however, isn't among the ranked in the conference.
Weber State has mainly been flying under the radar amid the traditional Big Sky powers and has a chance to take a major step forward this weekend at North Dakota.
Picked by both the coaches and the media to finish sixth in the conference preseason poll, the Wildcats (5-2, 4-0) are off to their best start to league play since winning their first seven games in 2008 - their only Big Sky crown since 1988. Despite the impressive start, they haven't been part of the conversation to win the league, as No. 3 Eastern Washington, 14th-ranked Cal Poly, No. 16 Montana and UND are the proverbial favorites.
One of the biggest reasons they haven't received much love from the voters is because they haven't faced the stiffest of competition.
Their Big Sky wins have come against UC Davis, Portland State, Montana State and Southern Utah - teams that are a combined 4-15 in conference play. Also not really impressing voters is three of those victories have come by a grand total of eight points.
In its latest win, Weber State rallied from a 22-point, fourth-quarter deficit, scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:21 to stun Southern Utah 37-36.
"I was really proud of our players and how they fought back," coach Jay Hill said. "Really showed their toughness and resolve just to stick with it and not give up."
While the Wildcats have managed to take advantage of a cushy schedule, the competition is about to get much tougher.
After a trip to the Alerus Center, where the Fighting Hawks are 11-3 under Bubba Schweigert, the Wildcats host a Northern Arizona team which defeated Montana last week for its third straight win. Cal Poly, which also beat the Grizzlies and lost at North Dakota for its only conference blemish, then pays a visit to Stewart Stadium.
"It doesn't get any easier," Hill said. "Obviously, this week we play North Dakota and they do a great job running the ball, they do a great job defending the run, they don't allow you to put many points on the board. Like I said, it doesn't get any easier and we're excited about this matchup."
Hill, though, might be a little concerned about how his offense matches up with the UND defense.
Weber State is seventh in the league in scoring offense and eighth in total yards, averaging 29 points and 406.6 yards, while North Dakota (6-2, 5-0) leads the Big Sky in scoring defense at 21.8 points per game.
The Wildcats' backfield has been hit hard by injuries, as quarterback Jadrian Clark has led the team in rushing in three of the last five games. Clark, however, can also put the ball in the air. He had a career-high 416 passing yards against Southern Utah and has thrown four touchdowns in each of the last two games, though those came against two of the conference's worst passing defenses.
He now faces a defense that has 13 interceptions, tied for the third-most in the FCS.
"We got to be able to limit his big plays," Schweigert said of Clark. "And that's difficult to do because he's got a strong arm and can fit it in some tight windows. That would be great if we could get some turnovers. We want to force turnovers and they really help your football team."
One of Weber State's biggest strengths has been a pass defense that is allowing a Big Sky-low 186.7 yards per game, but North Dakota doesn't put the ball in the air much. Its 199 pass attempts are the third-fewest in the conference.
Led by sophomores Brady Oliveira and John Santiago, the Fighting Hawks have eclipsed 200 yards rushing in 13 consecutive conference games and are second in the league in rushing at 219.6 yards per contest.
Oliveira is fourth in the Big Sky with 619 rushing yards while Santiago's 599 rank fifth. They've combined for 12 run TDs.
Santiago, named to the 2015 STATS All-American second team, had 157 rushing yards and a score at Weber State last season, but Clark threw for 273 yards and three TDs as the Wildcats rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter for a 25-24 win.
"This is a big game, there's no question about it," Schweigert said. "We hope that home field will give us some advantage but you can't count on it. You got to play well. That's the most important thing."