Utah (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12) opens the 2017 season by hosting a top 10 FCS squad in North Dakota (0-0, 0-0 Big Sky) out of the Big Sky Conference. This is the first time the two teams will play against each other. We have previewed the North Dakota offense and defense, we gave you three keys to the game, we made our picks, and told you how to watch, so let’s go to the 30,000 foot level and preview the game as a whole.
Strength versus strength
The North Dakota Fighting Hawks are a pro-style power running team, and they are facing a loaded Utah front seven. Utah returns all of their linebackers from 2016 and may have the deepest, most talented defensive line they have had in a long time. North Dakota features an All-American tailback in John Santiago, and he will be running behind an offensive line with four starters tipping the scale at 300 pounds or more. Can North Dakota get their rushing attack going against Utah’s front seven? Their offense is predicated on it, and the use the run to set up the pass with a lot of play action and some trick plays like flea flickers. If they cannot establish their running game, those types of plays in the passing game will not work as well.
Utah’s new offense against North Dakota’s defense
Utah will break in a new offense under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Utah will likely throw the football more this year than any other year in the Pac-12. There will also be a new quarterback with true sophomore Tyler Huntley earning the starting job over senior Troy Williams, who was the starter last season. North Dakota likes to bring pressure, especially against inexperienced quarterbacks to try to pressure them into mistakes. The strength of the Fighting Hawks defense is their secondary with Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Cole Reyes at strong safety. Sophomore cornerback Torrey Harris is another talented defensive back. He picked off three passes as a true freshman last season. The Utah offense is going to face a lot of blitzes and will be throwing at a secondary that tries to generate interceptions, which leads to the next point.
Watch the turnover battle
North Dakota led the Big Sky Conference last year in turnover margin. This is a team that takes the ball away from opponents on defense and is careful with the football on offense. Utah forced 31 turnovers last season, second in the Pac-12, and they were tied for second in the Pac-12 in turnover margin (+6), but they were died for last in turnovers with 25. With a new quarterback playing in a new offense, Utah could be at risk of turning over the football against this aggressive Fighting Hawks defense.
This is the first game of the year for both teams, so there is no game film for either team this season. This game should be a hard hitting, physical game. Both teams are cut from the same cloth so to speak. Utah historically has tried to establish the run on offense and stop the run on defense while winning the turnover battle. North Dakota plays football the same way. They may have different schemes to accomplish this with North Dakota running a pro-style offense and a 3-4 defense and Utah running a spread offense and a 4-3 or nickel defense, but they are trying to achieve similar results. Utah has a big talent advantage, so if they do not make too many mistakes, they should win comfortably.