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North Dakota vs. Utah State Football Prediction and Preview

Deven Thompkins, Utah State Aggies Football

Deven Thompkins and the Aggies look to build off of last week's huge road victory when they host the Fighting Hawks from the FCS ranks on Friday night

It was that once-in-a-blue-moon type victory. The first for a new head coach at Utah State in four-plus decades. The first over a Power 5 opponent since 2014. The first over a Power 5 foe on the road since 1971.

And one the Aggies program, which has struggled in recent times, can hang its hat on and hope helps build a better future on the football landscape. Starting with its home opener on Friday night against FCS heavyweight North Dakota.

But Blake Anderson says pump the brakes, folks.

“We’re not going to jump to conclusions,” the head coach told reporters after his Utah State debut victory over Washington State. "We did not play our best football. All in all, we made the plays we absolutely had to make."

They did just that, scoring two touchdowns in the final 5:25 for one of the biggest upsets of the Week 1 schedule.

Utah State went into Pullman and — on Logan Bonner’s seven-yard TD pass to receiver Deven Thompkins with just 11 seconds left — shocked the host Cougars in dramatic 26-23 fashion.

It’s the kind of result that gives the Aggies confidence that they can move to an unsuspecting 2-0 start to the season.

But the Fighting Hawks — also 1-0 to open the 2021 season — have other ideas. And they are not your ordinary FCS team, having contended for the spring-season title before bowing out in the quarterfinals of the playoffs a few months ago.

The Fighting Hawks went out and carried that spring success into this year’s first game, scoring a decisive 35-14 road win over Idaho State in Week 1. They got better as the game wore on, as they out-scored the home side 25-7 in the second half.

But like Anderson, Bubba Schweigert isn’t celebrating success just yet after one week of football.

“We’ve got a lot of things to work on,” the North Dakota head coach said. “We made a lot of mistakes (last week) — things we call discipline penalties that we’re concerned about that we’ve got to eliminate as we move forward here and ball security and then just being better playing situational football on defense.”

North Dakota at Utah State

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: N/A

When North Dakota Has the Ball

The Fighting Hawks proved last week that a balanced attack is a solid one. You can’t get much better than 185 rushing yards compared to 183 via the pass. And they kept mistakes to a minimum in earning the road victory.

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Another helping of all that, which fits their M.O., gives them a shot to move the ball enough for the win again.

Last week, quarterback Tommy Schuster was 14-of-18 for 183 yards and a touchdown. His backfield partner, running back Otis Weah, was in charge with three scores and 114 yards on 22 carries. But Weah and his teammates face an Aggies defensive front seven which is much more lethal than that of the Bengals.

Last week, the Aggies gave up just 360 total yards to a Pac-12 offense that’s been prolific in past years. The pass rush pushed Washington State, and the war in the trenches favored Utah State. So it won’t be as easy for North Dakota to find its way downfield in game No. 2.

When Utah State Has the Ball

The Aggies also proved that a balanced attack is key to victory. Against Washington State, they went for 222 on the ground and 219 through the air. The 441 total yards are a strong number to put up on the road against a Pac-12 opponent, leading to their first win against a Power 5 foe since a 36-24 victory over Wake Forest in 2014 and their first road win against a Power 5 team since a 10-7 win against Kansas State in 1971.

Coming home, it’ll be expected that they reprise such strong offense, especially against an incoming FCS side. But North Dakota is no pushover defensively. Last week at Idaho State, the Hawks defense allowed only 301 yards, thieving three passes along the way.

So it’s up to Bonner to be as good or better than his 17-of-24, 143-yard passing performance of last week. And another helping of Thompkins’ star-studded effort — eight catches for 94 yards and a TD — would also be welcome. 

The Aggies will have a few other playmakers to keep an eye on. Fellow quarterback Andrew Peasley contributed 43 yards on the ground, and senior receiver Savon Scarver can’t be overlooked either. His school-record six career kickoffs returned for touchdowns in his career is just shy of tying the NCAA mark, which is held by four other players. Scarver’s efforts on runbacks are also the second-most in Mountain West annals.

Final Analysis

The confidence is high on the side of the Aggies after last week’s memorable upset. But they’re not taking the FCS foe lightly — for good reason.

“We know they (North Dakota) is really good,” said Anderson, who became the first Aggies coach in more than 40 years to win in his debut. “It’s the same thing. It’s improvement, daily, weekly improvement, trying to keep our guys focused on the job at hand. … The one in the past does you no good. You’ve got to move on from celebration and move on to preparation — and that’s gonna be the story.”

A 2-0 start for Utah State would be the real story. Last year was a mess, including the dismissal of veteran coach Gary Andersen following an 0-3 start marred by controversy off the field. It meant an ugly 1-4 year that now has a chance to be put in the rear-view.

“They had an impressive win over Washington State,” Schweigert said. “They’re really a hard team to prepare for. We’re just trying to learn their personnel — a first-year coach that we have a lot of respect for and transfer guys. We hope we can handle (the short turnaround). We know we can handle it. We have to handle it.”

The program’s pedigree says the Fighting Hawks can do just that. This is a top-shelf FCS squad. One that’s going to fight to the wire in a barnburner of a game.

Prediction: Utah State 22, North Dakota 21

Podcast: Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread

— Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.