ISU football: Bengals gearing up for tough North Dakota squad to open Big Sky Conference play
POCATELLO — After nonconference matchups with a struggling Division II team and a Pac-12 Conference squad on the rise, Idaho State finally finds level playing ground this week in its Big Sky Conference opener.
The Bengals (1-1) travel to North Dakota (2-1) to open the league slate Saturday. The Fighting Hawks are flying high after an upset win at then-No. 5 Sam Houston State last weekend, and entered the STATS FCS top 25 poll this week at No. 22.
Here is a look at North Dakota ahead of Saturday’s matchup, which kicks off at 3 p.m. Mountain time from Grand Forks, North Dakota.
TWO-HEADED RB ATTACK LEADS OFFENSE
Idaho State’s running back duo of James Madison and Ty Flanagan has been dubbed by some as the thunder and lightning of ISU’s backfield. UND’s John Santiago and Brady Oliveira fit the moniker well.
The senior running backs have combined to carry the ball 78 times for 459 yards this season, good for 5.9 yards per tote. Add that to 51 yards receiving, and the backs have combined to rack up 510 of the Fighting Hawks’ 1,156 yards — 44.1 percent of the team’s offense.
Oliveira is a bruiser at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds. He led the team with 10 rushing touchdowns two seasons ago and has picked up third-team and honorable mention all-Big Sky honors.
Santiago is the speedster. The 5-foot-9, 187-pound weapon — who is also North Dakota’s primary return man — is a three-time first-team all-conference player and has a long list of accolades on his resume. He was a 2017 first-team All-American when he led the FCS in all-purpose yards, led the Big Sky in rushing yardage, all-purpose yards and rushing touchdowns as a freshman in 2015, and is one of five players in the 55-year history of the Big Sky to earn first-team all-league honors as a freshman, sophomore and junior.
Santiago ranks third in UND history in rushing yardage (3,447), sixth in rushing touchdowns (28) and second in all-purpose yards (6,118). He got loose for 139 yards on 18 carries against then-No. 9 Washington on Sept. 8 and has torched the Bengals to the tune of 256 yards rushing and two TDs on 42 carries in two games.
Santiago is the FCS’ active career leader in all-purpose yards and is second in career rushing yardage.
“Is that guy not gone yet?” ISU coach Rob Phenicie joked when referring to Santiago on Monday. “We have a coach assigned to him. If he goes to dinner at the dining hall, we’re going to know he’s there. We’re going to know where he is at all times Saturday.”
SAC STATE TRANSFER KETTERINGHAM TURNOVER-FREE
Former Sacramento State quarterback Nate Ketteringham is in his first season leading UND’s offense and has yet to throw an interception in 89 passes.
The redshirt junior has tossed for 510 yards and four touchdowns this season, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter of the Fighting Hawks’ upset win at Sam Houston State.
In two seasons at Sac State, Ketteringham averaged 199.2 yards passing per game, with 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 17 outings (16 starts). He went 1-1 against ISU with the Hornets, combining to complete 45 of 72 passes for 614 yards, six touchdowns and two picks.
Ketteringham has always been mobile, evidenced by 332 career yards rushing and six touchdowns on 165 attempts. He’s been particularly shifty against the Bengals, rushing for 138 yards and two scores on 28 carries in two prior meetings.
Ketteringham leads UND with two rushing touchdowns this season.
Phenicie said Monday that UND doesn’t operate a zone-read offense or another scheme that results in heavy loads of quarterback runs. Rather, they operate what is nowadays a rarely seen system.
“They line up with fullbacks and tight ends,” Phenicie said. “They do this thing where they put two guys behind the quarterback and then the quarterback gets real close to the center and, I don’t know what he’s doing there, but they give him the ball. It’s something that we don’t see much.”
Phenicie attributed Ketteringham’s 22 rushing attempts this year to “scramble and breakdowns.”
UND DEFENSE AMONG FCS’ BEST AT BACKFIELD TACKLES
North Dakota’s defense is tied for third in the FCS with 12 sacks, and has amassed 26 tackles for loss to rank eighth in the subdivision.
The Fighting Hawks had 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss against Sam Houston State’s vaunted offense and managed 6 backfield stops at Washington — as well as two interceptions.
UND returns a pair of 2017 third-team all-conference defensive players in nose tackle Tank Harris and linebacker Tanner Palmborg, as well as 2016 second-team All-America cornerback Deion Harris, who missed last season with an injury. Defensive end Mason Bennett is tied for 22nd in the FCS with 5 tackles for loss and is tied for sixth with 4 sacks. Bennett is one of 10 UND players with at least a half-sack this season.
North Dakota’s total defense (389.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (25 points per game) both rank in the top 50 of the FCS and should be examined with respect to Washington, a top-10 FBS team that put up 45 points and 632 yards of offense against the Hawks.
The Fighting Hawks opened their season with a 35-7 win over Mississippi Valley State and are holding FCS opponents to 268 yards and 15 points per game. Sam Houston’s loss to UND was the team’s first home loss since 2015, snapping the longest active home winning streak in the FCS at 21 games.
SHSU averaged 33.7 points and 514 yards per game last season, when the Bearkats advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
“They are a good, good operation,” Phenicie said of UND’s defense. “They’re a very balanced defense. They have good coverages, tough to decipher. You have to see where their guys are lined up and how they’re moving on the snap. They do a lot up front to make it very difficult on you with their movement, twists and sending guys off the edge.”