North Dakota has sights on 1st playoff berth in D-I era
FARGO, N.D. (AP) The University of North Dakota is hoping to put its new nickname on a new national stage.
The football team that was dubbed the Fighting Hawks earlier this week is gunning for its first postseason berth since moving up to NCAA Division I in 2008. Most observers believe a win this weekend on the road at Cal Poly should put UND among the 24 teams in the Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Two years after taking over the floundering program, Fighting Hawks coach Bubba Schweigert knows the significance of a possible postseason appearance in a state that has been owned by four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State, which moved to Division I in 2003. Most of UND's national sports publicity has come from the years-long controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname, which was retired three years ago.
''We know we have a rival school that has done a very good job in their move to Division I football,'' Schweigert said. ''We also know inside the walls here there are a lot of good things taking place. But to have an outside signature, for lack of a better term, by getting into the FCS playoffs, would be huge for us at this time.
''It's our most important game in the Division I era,'' he said.
Dale Lennon, a UND alumnus and the coach at Southern Illinois, where Schweigert worked with him as an assistant, said his longtime cohort has used the same formula that once made UND formidable at the Division II level: Start by building a solid defense and then create a run-oriented offense that doesn't turn over the ball.
''Coach Schweigert and the gang have been very methodical in their approach to it,'' Lennon said. ''I'm surprised how they are doing at this point in time, in the second year. They still have one game to take care of, but I'm excited for them.''
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, whose team stands between UND and a possible milestone, said the Fighting Hawks have made a ''big jump'' between last year and this year.
''I think we're playing probably the most improved team in the league, not only from a year ago to this year, but I think also from week three and where we are right now,'' Walsh said. ''They are playing very well on both sides of the football.''
The Fighting Hawks (6-4, 4-3 Big Sky Conference) have signature wins over Wyoming and Portland State. They also have two disappointing losses, against Idaho State and Weber State, where they blew leads in the second half. And then there was a 34-9 shellacking at the hands of NDSU in the third game of the season and the first game between the two century-old rivals in a dozen years.
Walsh said UND has grown since the Bison beating.
''No offense to North Dakota State, but that game was probably a good wake-up call for them,'' Walsh said. ''I know North Dakota State is good on defense, but I really think this is a different team than they played five or six weeks ago.''
The Fighting Hawks have put together back-to-back victories over Montana State, the preseason favorite of Big Sky coaches, and Northern Colorado.
''My hat goes off to Bubba. He had his guys ready and playing darn good right now,'' Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. ''He's got some guys back healthy and we knew we had our work cut out for us.''
Walsh said his Cal Poly squad (3-4, 4-6) will be facing a team Saturday with something to prove, even beyond this season.
''They are really young,'' Walsh said. ''I think that this game has significance to their future, not only 2015, but `16, `17 and `18. I think they're at a point where they're not taking baby steps, but huge steps. If they continue to do that, they will be around the top of the Big Sky for a while.''