Touchdown titans

UND Fighting Hawks and FBS Pac-12 powerhouse Utah Utes set to clash in football

John Santiago

UND All-American running back John Santiago interacts with a young fan at a recent UND Fighting Hawks Football Fan Fest at Memorial Stadium on the UND campus. On Thursday night, Santiago will be one of the UND stars leading the charge against FBS powerhouse Utah in Salt Lake City. Photo by Shawna Schill.

It’s game week for the high-flying UND Fighting Hawks football team as it prepares for a little David-vs.-Goliath action Thursday night against Pac-12 power Utah in the raucous confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

It was evident as early as Monday that UND coaches and players are relishing their role as small-school upstart going up against the proverbial giant.

“It’s a real opportunity for us to test ourselves,” said UND Head Football Coach Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere … in a stadium that’s loud and presents some real work challenges – and that’s how we’re going to look at it.”

On paper, anyway, the University of Utah Utes, a Power 5 program in the Football Bowl Subdivision, is the clear favorite to win, with odds makers projecting close to a three-touchdown victory for the flagship of the Beehive State.

The Fighting Hawks should expect a boisterous greeting from Utes faithful, which, on any given game day, can number more than 45,000, in their picturesque high-altitude stadium. With the famed Mt. Olympus serving as a daunting backdrop and lording over the green turf below, UND (ranked as high as No. 8 nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision) will pray that the gods cast favor upon its gridiron warriors when they clash at 6:30 p.m. (CST) with the hometown titans of Utah (ranked No. 25 in the latest Top 25 FBS Coaches Poll).

Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

The Fighting Hawks should expect a boisterous greeting from Utes faithful, which, on any given game day, can number more than 45,000, in their picturesque high-altitude Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Unfinished business

For some Fighting Hawks, such as UND All-American senior safety Cole Reyes, a highly touted NFL prospect, Thursday night is just another game on the schedule.

“We’re just all excited to see another color jersey in front of us,” Reyes said. “Regardless who you’re going up against you have to be confident going on to that field … were all playing the same sport out there.”

Reyes says there a sense that the team has some unfinished business to tend to from last year’s 9-3 campaign, which ended in a second-round FCS playoff home loss to Richmond after the Hawks led for most of the game. That task, win or lose, resumes on Thursday night in Salt Lake City.

“We’re just motivated,” he said. “You always want to take the next step. Our ultimate goal is to compete for a national championship; that’s what we strive for every day.”

Quarterback Keaton Studsrud has played in front of some big crowds during his time at UND, but none bigger than what he’ll encounter at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Utah. Studsrud led UND to its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent two years ago against the University of Wyoming in Laramie, before an announced crowd of nearly 24,000 people. He’s also seen big crowds at opposing FCS stadiums, such as the University of Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington and the Fargodome at North Dakota State.

“We have a good idea what to expect, but it’s a once in a lifetime experience going out there and playing in front of 45-50,000 people,” Studsrud said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Listen to the game:

Locally on the Home of Economy Radio Network: 96.1 FM, with play-by-play caller Jack Michaels, color commentator Coach Mike Berg and sideline reporter Paul Ralston.

www.UNDSports.com (Free)

Live from Utah:

Televised on the Pac-12 Network, with play-by-play caller Guy Haberman, analyst Yogi Roth and sideline reporter Jill Savage.

Live Stream:

Pac-12 Live

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