Weber State football (7-2, 5-0 Big Sky) is back home to host No. 22 North Dakota (5-3) at 2 p.m. Saturday.
1. North Dakota has a new offensive coordinator this season who was on staff previously. How have you seen the offense change and what does success look like for this UND offense?
Miller: The UND offense has really turned almost 180 degrees in terms of style. Previously, UND's offense was run-oriented and featured big bodies — a fullback and multiple tight ends. Under new offensive coordinator Danny Freund, a former standout quarterback at UND, the offense is now more of a spread look with plenty of four wide receiver sets.
This season, the offense has clicked when senior quarterback Nate Ketteringham is able to get the ball out quick to his big-bodied wide receivers and lets them make plays on the edge. When the UND offense gets in trouble, it's often because Ketteringham is pressured and escapability is not his strength.
2. Last year, UND put a scare into Weber by scoring two special teams touchdowns. Do you get the sense from the team that they might have let one get away last season and they want to rectify that?
Miller: I don't think there's a feeling of letting one slip away. If anything, those two special teams scores created a mirage of a final score, so I don't think there's a revenge angle. UND players left that game understanding Weber State's physical style and overall talent.
I think they know they face a tall task, but one that also provides the potential to slingshot UND up the rankings and solidify playoff standing if the Hawks could pull off the upset.
3. Who are the defensive playmakers for the Fighting Hawks? Who are players that WSU fans should know?
Miller: We probably won't know until game time if Weber State fans will see UND's defensive playmakers. Defensive end Mason Bennett and linebacker Jaxson Turner are the stars of the defense and there's potential neither will see the field against the Wildcats. Bennett was injured three weeks ago at Cal Poly and Turner suffered an injury in UND's win over Montana State last Saturday. Turner, who can provide quarterback pressure from his outside linebacker position in UND's 3-4 defensive look, is more likely to play than Bennett.
Other defenders worth noting for UND include inside linebackers Noah Larson and Donnell Rodgers, and cornerbacks C.J. Siegel and Evan Holm. Holm, a multi-year starter, played in his first game of 2019 last Saturday against Montana State.
4. North Dakota is like a large chunk of Big Sky teams so far: tough at home and ... not ... on the road. Beating ranked teams at home, then losing to Idaho State on the road, is a stark contrast. What's behind that, and how have the Hawks been preparing for this road trip?
Miller: That's the million-dollar question. I get asked that all the time, and I've asked that very thing to players and coaches most of the season. Montana State coach Jeff Choate said UND looks like a completely different team at home, playing fast and confident. It's probably a combination of many factors, but I do know UND has done a poor job handling adversity on the road when it comes to weather and travel.
The Hawks lost in Cheney at Eastern Washington in a game that was played in blizzard-like conditions. Later in the year, the aforementioned loss at Idaho State, came a day after UND saw an expected two-hour travel day turn into a nine-hour travel day thanks to a blizzard in Grand Forks. Those sound like poor excuses, but I think they played at least some factor in the performances.
I asked UND coach Bubba Schweigert on Monday this week if he planned to change any road routines to break up the team's performance away from home this year. He basically said they wouldn't change much because the routine they've used on the road has proven successful across other seasons.
5. Big picture: UND won the Big Sky a few seasons ago and has built its program to where they're kind of "going home" next season to the Missouri Valley. How is fan support, and is the community excited for UND sports to be in the same leagues as their Dakota brethren?
Miller: I would say there's cautious excitement. I think UND fans look forward to seeing a consistent schedule of more regionally recognizable opponents, but there's also an element of concern. The Missouri Valley has a strong reputation. I think Fighting Hawks' fans know UND needs to continue to grow the program — the Hawks weren't Division I until 2008, after all — because you're not going to enjoy your time in a conference as the fourth-best Dakota school.
UND's football fan base hit a peak around 2001 when the then-Fighting Sioux won a Division II national title and the Alerus Center opened in Grand Forks. Since the move to Division I, fan interest has fluctuated as the Hawks have struggled to maintain success while playing in the shadows of the FCS' most consistent program 75 miles away in Fargo.
UND's ability to close the competitive gap with North Dakota State and South Dakota State will go a long way to reach a fan base that also has the tug of one of college hockey's powerhouse programs which plays about the same time of year nearby in $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena.