North Dakota went 5-6 last year in FCS… but many of those losses are familiar for a Nebraska fan as they lost 5 of those by one score or less. In fact, every single FCS loss was by one score. The only game where they lost by more was to an FBS opponent (Utah State 48-24). That was North Dakota’s first losing season since 2017, and they have been pretty decent as of late. They have never beat a Power 5 team, so that should bode well for us. This year, they are selected to be 7th in the conference according to the preseason coaches poll:
With that said, they did receive some votes in the top 25, although i’m not sure how that works:
North Dakota Offense
North Dakota returns their starting QB from 2021, Tommy Schuster, who had 2500 yards passing with 13 TDs and 7 INTs. What’s interesting about this team is they do have a “change of pace” player to come in and run the ball a bit more than Schuster provides. Danny Freund tends to try and lean on the rushing attack, and be efficient in the passing game. But as we all know, trying to guess what an FCS team will do against a P5 team is tough.
Sticking with running the ball, North Dakota really doesn’t have a “bell cow” that they lean on this year as they lost second team all-conference RB Otis Weah. They will more than likely rotate backs quite a bit to try and keep them fresh and get different strengths on the field while trying to figure out who they can lean on. With that said, they also got a transfer in from Northern Iowa that could help lighten losing Otis Weah.
While I sat here and told you that they were a rushing attack first type of team, their most electric players offensively that return are in their WR room. They bring back leading WR Bo Belquist, who had 52 receptions for 535 yards and 5 touchdowns. They lose a couple talented WRs from a year ago, but get back Garrett Maag who was supposed to be a top player for them last year but was often injured. At TE they return their top target Adam Zavalney who had 20 receptions for 303 yards and 4 touchdowns. Could we see them use that TD to neutralize our pass rush like Northwestern did?
North Dakota only return 2 starters among their offensive line, a tackle and a guard, and by all accounts they struggled to keep Schuster clean last year and get the rushing attack going. They also lose first team all-conference lineman Matt Waletzko from last year. This could be a great game for the Blackshirt DL to really tee off on one of the few times they will play an inferior OL.
North Dakota Defense
Opposite of the offense, North Dakota was quite salty on defense last year as they ranked 22nd in FCS in scoring defense despite having to deal with multiple injuries in 2021.
North Dakota returns 2 starters along their DL (they run a 3-4) which should help them at least hold up somewhat decent against our rushing attack. They have a host of other DL that played last year as injuries mounted up, so they have experience, it’s just how good is that experience? They will more than likely be fine in the moment against us, I just wonder how good that talent is?
However, like Northwestern last week, North Dakota only returns one linebacker. ILB Devon Krzanowski who led the team in tackles last year is back. I don’t think he’s quite as good as the Fordham LB who had 31 tackles against us, but he’s probably their best defensive player returning. Other than that, they are having to fill the other ILB spot as well as both OLB positions. It will be a chore getting them ready to play a Power 5 team.
The defensive backs were a strength last year for the team, but they lost both starters at safety as well as a starting corner (much like Nebraska). They only return one player that started last year in the back of the defense. I can see this being a big issue for them against us.
What I predict for Saturday
North Dakota lost way too much at linebacker and in the secondary to be able to harness our passing attack. I think Casey Thompson is going to have a field day throwing to whoever the hell he wants early and often (as long as his thumb isn’t an issue). Really the only way this won’t be the case is if we are just running all over these guys and don’t have to throw at all, which could obviously be the case as well.
We talked about how we really couldn’t run the ball at all on Northwestern, and how the QB run game was non-existent except for putting Smothers in the game. Will we see Thompson try to run more, will we insert Smothers more? Personally i’d like us to save those wrinkles for Oklahoma as a “surprise”. At the end of the day our OL needs to be able to move North Dakota’s front 7 wherever they want. We have heard many references about how difficult it is to just hand the ball off and run the ball in this league, but this is an FCS opponent. This is the game we establish dominance in the trenches against an out-manned FCS team picked to finish in the middle of the pack in their conference.
North Dakota does typically like to blitz quite a bit on defense, and when you are playing a team that you can’t just line up against and push back, many times that is what defensive coordinators lean on. I expect them to get some TFLs maybe even a sack here or there, but when you gamble like that in a four quarter game, it typically comes back to bite you. We will break some big plays and the Nebraska offense is going to aim to show people this offense is something to be scared of.
As far as the Blackshirts go, I could see North Dakota trying to get some quick passes to their WRs and TEs while they figure out who the RB will be and if they can get any movement on us. I just think this will be a good “get right” game for our Blackshirts who gave up over 300 yards passing and over 200 yards rushing. We should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage on this side of the ball as well.
This will also be a good “get right” game for our pass rush that was non-existent last week and I expect to see 3 or 4 sacks this game. Further, while Northwestern isn’t exactly dynamic at the skill positions, they had very effective RBs and WRs, certainly better than what we will see this week. Tackling will look much improved and so will many other things that we struggled with.
I’ll be curious to see if we have any coverage breakdowns. While our skillset is vastly superior to North Dakota, that doesn’t change the fact that if there is confusion on the backend of our defense a WR can get wide open. We all saw the play that Northwestern scored their first touchdown on:
All of us reading this preview could have scored there, so North Dakota surely has someone that can. I look for Fisher to have a “prove to me you can be where I need you to” outlook with these guys on Saturday.
Will jet lag be an issue? It shouldn’t be, but it was definitely a shorter week for us.
Can we reduce the coverage breakdowns?
Is Thompsons thumb ok?
Losing Domann from last year is tough. That guy made Chinander right no matter what. Currently we try to match Gifford or Kolarevic based on a pass or run situation. We saw Kolarevic in the open field, definitely not as good at tackling there or covering as Gifford. Conversely, if we have Gifford in and they run we are down 30 pounds. What do we do there?
Sharp and Benning brought up the difference in press conferences between the guys that have been here a while and the newcomers. Nelson seemed defeated, like he has seen this whole thing play out before. Thompson, was upbeat and wasn’t gonig to let this one game define us. Do we have enough attitudes like the latter? I’m not sure.
Concerns that I think look much better this week (but won’t give us a true picture for whole season):
OL and DL dominating the line of scrimmage, opposite of Ireland
Time of possession in our favor
Win the turnover battle
Last year, Martinez ran wild against Northwestern for over 6 ypc and 3 touchdowns. It seems like this year we completely took the QB run that the Wildcats struggled with off the table. I think we will have some element of that moving forward, but again, do we show it in the next two weeks or save it for Oklahoma? When you can’t move the line of scrimmage, you have to go +1 in the run game with the QB. You saw us do that with Thompson’s rushing touchdown that we barely got a half a yard on. Something is going to have to give. We either need to figure out our rushing attack, or we gotta start running the QB more.
Gives me hope from Ireland:
Minimal penalties first game, hopefully we can carry that over.
Our skill position players are unlike anything North Dakota has seen and will take over
I think Whipple can scheme up their defense for some very long plays
Nebraska’s offense is going to be pissed off, and they left points on the field up in Ireland. As long as there is no “travel hangover” I think we try to really come out firing on all cylinders and light up the scoreboard. More than we would if we would have won last week.
Further, I think the Blackshirts are going to have a much better day. We will control the LOS and then all of a sudden watch, the linebackers and DBs will have a much easier time tackling. Also, we will get some pressure on the quarterback which will force some passes that will turn into interceptions.
The #1 concern for these next 2 weeks is no injuries to crucial spots. Can’t have a DL get injured, can’t have Vokolek get injured, we gotta stay healthy.
48-17 Nebraska. I saw that the over/under for this game is 49.5 and that makes zero sense to me. Nebraska is going to try and get to that number on their own and the weather looks good for Saturday.
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