3 things we learned: Third down a key factor in third-ranked North Dakota road win over Western Illinois
Saturday at 4:17 pm
Despite its league-leading rusher being shaken up with an apparent injury in the first half, No. 3 North Dakota handled Western Illinois 38-21 in Missouri Valley Football Conference action Saturday in Macomb.
The Fighting Hawks, playing in their debut MVFC season, instead switched to the pass and built a 21-7 halftime lead. North Dakota rolled up 298 yards—211 passing—in building that advantage.
While UND’s Otis Weah left the game following a big hit by defensive back Bryce Cross, Fighting Hawks redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster riddled WIU with short passing routes and third-down conversions.
Schuster eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark for the first time in his career. The 2018 AP Prep Player of the Year in Michigan completed 29-of-37 throws for 328 yards and three touchdowns.
Weah did return to the field in the second half and scored his sixth touchdown of the season on a 12-yard run in which he broke four tackles on his way into the end zone. Weah finished the game with 99 yards on 17 carries.
North Dakota improved its record to 4-0. It was the first road win for the Fighting Hawks after three straight home victories this spring.
“It was new for a lot of our guys,” North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “We had 17 guys that had never been on a trip, so we’re coming to a place they had never been to. A few of our coaches had been here because they had coached in the Valley. I thought our players handled the travel pretty well.”
UND stands atop the Missouri Valley standings heading into next Saturday’s showdown with defending national champion North Dakota State.
“It’s obviously a big game for us, we haven’t been in the same league for many years,” Schweigert said. “We’re looking forward to that. We’re trying to get our fifth win and it would be over a very good football team and a program that we have a lot of respect for.”
Western Illinois fell to 0-3.
Here are three things we learned:
- WIU’s defense is on the field way too much
As the Leathernecks struggled on offense, North Dakota controlled the ball for more than two-thirds of the first half.
“We’ve got to do a better job on offense of staying on schedule,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott said in the postgame. “We’re not doing that consistently enough. Whether it’s an untimely penalty or just a lack of execution, all it takes is one play to get you off schedule.”
While WIU’s defense came up with some key run stops and pass break-ups at times, the Leathernecks just can’t spend that much time on the field. Tired players are more prone to missed tackles and a step slow on assignments.
Moreover, key defenders Justin Nutof and Eryk Preston also missed plays with injuries putting more pressure on the Leathernecks’ depth.
2. Third down continues to matter both ways
In the week’s runup to Saturday’s kickoff, Elliott talked about the importance of third down.
North Dakota converted 6-of-7 third down plays as it dominated first-half time of possession. That number includes a couple of third-and-long conversions when WIU players missed tackles that would have stopped the UND player short of the needed yardage.
The Fighting Hawks finished the day 8-for-11 on third down.
Meanwhile, Western’s offense continued its trend of struggling on third down. The Leathernecks entered the game converting just 26% of third downs; Saturday WIU went 3-for-9.
“That was the name of the game today for us on both sides of the ball,” Elliott said. “I know there were way too many third-and-long situations (for WIU). We’ve got to execute better.”
Certainly WIU is hampered by the loss of first-string running back DeShon Gavin who was hurt in the season opener. Since then, true freshman Iosefa Pua’Auli has shouldered the load. The Honolulu, Hawaii native scored both WIU touchdowns Saturday.
On the defensive side, Nutof said, “It’s devastating. You’ve got to get off the field on third down. You’ve got to be able to tackle. We didn’t do that today and that cost us a lot. It’s demoralizing.”
3. It won’t get easier from here on out
WIU has five games remaining in its spring conference-only schedule. Four of those contests will feature opponents that either are or have been ranked in the FCS Top 25 this season.
The Missouri Valley has five teams ranked in Top 10. Two of those teams are upcoming WIU opponents. The MVFC has seven teams in the most recent Top 25.
Playing from behind much of the season, Western has thrown the ball 68 percent of its offensive calls. Senior quarterback Connor Sampson completed 33-of-47 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s loss.
Dennis Houston led WIU with eight catches for 108 yards. Dallas Daniels, six receptions for 50 yards, caught the fourth-quarter touchdown.
WIU travels to Normal to play in-state rival Illinois State Saturday, March 20.