Potato Bowl provides true FCS test for Fighting Hawks

GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota and No. 24 Sam Houston State enter Week 3 in a similar position.

The Fighting Hawks and the Bearkats have played a superior opponent and an inferior opponent.

For both teams, the Potato Bowl — 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Alerus Center — is going to provide a clear barometer as to where each sits in the FCS hierarchy.

“I think it’s important because we’re going to the bye week and have two huge games after the bye week,” UND senior quarterback Andrew Zimmerman said. “I think we need to be 2-1 moving forward, to get to the bye week and get a couple of guys back. It’s just another positive step forward.”

UND, who plays No. 4 Eastern Washington and No. 5 UC Davis after the bye week, has handily beat non-scholarship Drake 47-7 and lost decisively to FCS No. 1 North Dakota State 38-7. Sam Houston State, meanwhile, fell to FBS New Mexico 39-31 and dominated NAIA Oklahoma Panhandle 77-0.

“I really don’t think we know how good we can be,” Sam Houston State coach KC Keeler said. “I think a game like this can set the tone for the rest of the season. We’re still trying to figure out how good of a football team we can be. Secretly, I think I have a pretty good football team. I guess we’ll find out.”

Sam Houston State is eyeing revenge for UND breaking a 21-game home winning streak last year. The streak was the longest in the country when the Fighting Hawks used a late Nate Ketteringham-to-Noah Wanzek touchdown pass on fourth down to steal a 24-23 win over the Bearkats on a near-90-degree day in Huntsville.

“It hurt,” Sam Houston State defensive back Tristin McCollum said. “A team from up north, coming down, and they were just running the ball a lot. They weren’t even doing things we couldn’t handle, but we couldn’t handle it at the time. I think coming in for this game, we’ll be a lot more prepared for it and a lot more ready for it.”

UND’s offense will have a much different look than in 2018. First, Ketteringham remains sidelined after a Week 1 leg injury, which means Zimmerman will make his second career start against Sam Houston.

UND’s backfield duo of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira were seniors a year ago, leaving rushing questions for the Fighting Hawks to solve in 2019.

In addition, the Hawks’ offensive scheme has morphed from a big-personnel, run-first attack to a spread, passer-friendly approach.

“They’re trying to beat you with a couple of fancy plays and fancy tricks and formations but as long as we get lined up we’ll be fine,” McCollum said. “It’s going to be a lot more different than what we do down here. The guys are kind of pumped up to see (Grand Forks) and interact with the fans. We aren’t shying away from anything.”