OGDEN — At the end of practice Wednesday, Jay Hill spoke to his Weber State football team in its usual post-practice huddle in the middle of the field at Stewart Stadium.
Hill told his team that, after all their work and dedication for the last 49 weeks, the Wildcats are exactly where they want to be: ranked highly, undefeated in conference play, and competing for a conference championship and a high seed in the FCS Playoffs.
He implored his players, for three more weeks, to deliver the same focus and effort that has brought WSU this far.
Next up for the No. 3 Wildcats (7-2, 5-0 Big Sky) is the No. 22 North Dakota Fighting Hawks (5-3).
It’s the end of the peculiar, two-year setup that pulls independent North Dakota into the Big Sky schedule to help the Hawks fill up games. UND is not a member of the Big Sky and not part of conference standings, but the game does count as a conference game for Weber State and the seven other Big Sky teams who play the Hawks.
Weber State hopes to carry the momentum it’s built during two road wins over ranked teams in perhaps the two most complete games of the last two seasons, defeating then-No. 22 UC Davis 36-20 and No. 8 Sacramento State 36-17.
“I don’t want to sound cocky and say it’s not a surprise, but this is what we’ve prepared to do,” sophomore defensive lineman McKade Mitton said. “Every week, our coaches do their part and spend their time preparing us so we’ll be in situations to perform the way that we should. We spend time doing the same thing, watching film.
“You go into the game expecting to play a complete game and when you do, it feels good.”
That preparation’s next test is a program that, under coach Bubba Schweigert, has built a reputation of being tenacious. UND won the Big Sky outright by going undefeated in 2016 and, even as an independent last season, was one win away from making the playoffs.
“Tough, disciplined,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said of North Dakota. “Bubba Schweigert does a great job on offense, defense, special teams. They’re going to fight you to the bitter end. They do things right, they play the game well.”
The Hawks defeated Sam Houston State, UC Davis and Montana State at home, all teams ranked at the time of the game, but has lost road contests to Idaho State and Eastern Washington.
Offensively, UND looks different than it has in recent years, trading sets with fullbacks and tight ends for more shotgun spread passing. The Hawks score 25.6 points per game, which would be 10th in the Big Sky.
Top rushers James Johannesson and Dalton Gee each average more than 4.5 yards per carry but a passing focus means UND averages only 116 rushing yards per game, which would be 10th in the Big Sky.
Nate Ketteringham is back at quarterback, completing 64% of his passes with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. A 249-yard-per-game average would be middle of the pack in the Big Sky. He throws most often to Noah Wanzek (71 yards per game) and Garett Maag (52).
“They had a good game plan against us last year, maybe one of the best of anyone who faced us last year, as far as points and yards,” Hill said of WSU’s 35-30 win. “I don’t think they’ll go too far off that plan. They are throwing it a bit more this year, and a little more effectively, which is huge and part of the reason they’re there fighting for the playoffs. So we’re going to have to play well this week.”
Defensively, UND might be without its top players in defensive end Mason Bennett and linebacker Jackson Turner, according to Tom Miller of the Grand Forks Herald. Statistically, the Hawks average giving up fewer passing yards per game (177 yards) than anyone in the Big Sky, but allow an average of 196 rushing yards per contest, which would be 10th in the Big Sky.
Giving up 29 points per game would be sixth in the Big Sky for the Hawks. So in short, North Dakota is adequate to good in several areas, doing enough things well enough to make opponents earn everything they get.
“A lot of it is just playing a complete game,” Mitton said. “Last year, our offense played outstanding but defensively we kind of fell asleep and we gave up two touchdowns on special teams. Against any team, if we go out and play a complete game, we’ll be in good shape. Just not overlook anyone, and come out and execute the game plan.”
‘CATS BACK AT HOME
Weber State spent the last two weeks on the road in the Sacramento, California, area after playing several home games in various inclement weather involving cold, rain or both.
But, for Saturday’s 2 p.m. kickoff, there may not be a cloud in the sky and the forecast shows temperatures creeping near 60 degrees by kickoff.
Between that and the team enjoying its highest national ranking in school history, there’s hope on campus that the community shows up to cheer the Wildcats.
“We hope everyone in Ogden shows up,” Mitton said. “It’s always better when you have fans and family and students here. We’re going to go out and represent Ogden and Weber State the right way. We’ll play the brand of football we have this whole season.”
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
Sportsbook 5dimes shows Weber State as a 16.5-point favorite in the contest. Combined with the over-under of 51.5, the odds suggest a WSU win of about 34-17.
Jeff Sagarin’s famed rating and prediction model ranks all of Division I, both FBS and FCS. Weber State is ranked 95th, up more than 20 spots over the course of the season. North Dakota is ranked 150th (out of 256 teams). His model also favors Weber State by 16.5.