UND players avoid thinking about the big picture prior to home opener

GRAND FORKS — The UND football team made its first appearance in the FCS playoffs a year ago, so there’s newness for the program and its fans when it comes to building a resume for the postseason.

One key component of the playoff picture for the No. 11-ranked Fighting Hawks will be how they navigate non-conference play, starting with the 4 p.m. Potato Bowl matchup Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Alerus Center with Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Although the Week 2 matchup could play a big part in playoff seeding come November, you’d be hard-pressed to find any UND players thinking about postseason implications this week at Memorial Stadium.

“I’ll think about the playoffs when the playoffs come,” UND junior nose guard Tank Harris said. “I live by ‘day by day.’ I’m taking it one game at a time.”

UND, the defending Big Sky Conference champions, received the No. 7 seed in last year’s FCS playoffs before Richmond completed a second-half comeback to win at the Alerus Center.

“I think we try not to think about the big picture until the end,” UND sophomore wide receiver Travis Toivonen said. “(Today) is going to be the biggest game because it’s the next one.”

Both UND and Missouri State are 0-1 coming into the game and out to see where they stand against an FCS opponent after tough FBS openers.

UND started with a 37-16 loss to Utah and hopes it can rediscover its ground attack, a unit that was stifled (55 yards) against a tough Pac 12 defense.

Missouri State, meanwhile, hopes its offensive showing in a 72-43 loss at Missouri wasn’t a fluke. And that the Bears’ defense is better than it looked against a high-powered SEC offense.

UND and Missouri State are both rebuilding programs, although the Fighting Hawks’ resurgence has been quicker.

Bubba Schweigert, in his fourth season, has taken UND from 3-8 under Chris Mussman in 2013 to records of 5-7, 7-4 and 9-3.

Missouri State, under third-year coach Dave Steckel, jumped from a one win team in 2015 to four wins in 2016. He also is the brother of former Minnesota Vikings coach Les Steckel.

“We know they’re a really good team,” Toivonen said. “I think we’re all excited to be back home and have a big crowd behind us.”

UND anticipates to be near a sellout crowd. The Alerus can hold more than 13,000 fans.

“There’s going to be a lot of noise,” Harris said. “It’s going to be a nice environment, that’s for sure.”