This isn’t an unfamiliar position for North Dakota.
While the Fighting Hawks have never been ranked this high in an FCS poll — No. 4 this week in the Stats Perform Top 25 — defeating highly-ranked opponents is something the players have done before. In 2018, UND defeated No. 5 Sam Houston State on the road. In 2019, the Fighting Hawks took down No. 12 UC Davis and No. 9 Montana State.
Those three wins put the program in the national spotlight for a week, but each time it quickly disappeared when the Fighting Hawks lost the following Saturday. Two of those losses were against unranked Idaho State, and the third was a three-point loss to No. 3 Weber State.
UND has been here before. Now it wants to stay here as it owns the two most impressive FCS wins in its debut season as a Missouri Valley Football Conference member. The Fighting Hawks beat No. 3 South Dakota State 28-17 last weekend. The previous week saw a 44-21 win against No. 24 Southern Illinois, who is now ranked No. 11 after the Salukis dominated then-No. 1 North Dakota State 38-14 on Saturday.
“It’s been a good couple of weeks here, but we’ve won big games before,” standout safety Jordan Canady told HERO Sports. “This isn’t something new to us. It’s a good start, but there’s a lot more to go. We’re not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
It was all the way back in January of 2017 when it was announced UND would join the MVFC. This was on the heels of the program winning the 2016 Big Sky Conference title. The defending Big Sky champs joining another FCS power conference in a few years was treated as a huge deal.
The Fighting Hawks entered its last season as a Big Sky member in 2017 preseason ranked No. 8 nationally. But they finished with a disappointing 3-8 record. In its first season as an FCS independent in 2018, UND missed the playoffs again with a 6-5 record. In 2019, the Fighting Hawks went 7-5 and returned to the postseason, losing to Nicholls in the first round.
At this point, UND joining the MVFC in 2020 had lost its luster compared to when the announcement was made. Expectations weren’t there for UND to be a factor, and the Fighting Hawks were No. 7 in the spring preseason MVFC poll and unranked in the national polls.
The players and coaches were eager to join the Valley to show they belonged.
“We’ve seen all the stuff with the media and all of that kind of stuff,” Canady said. “But we’re just focusing on us and our program, doing things day-by-day. We knew coming into the conference this was going to happen. You don’t just get respect for not doing anything. We knew we had to come in and prove it. No one was going to give it to us, we had to take it.”
With the fall season and UND’s conference debut postponed, players had to stay patient. While just about every top team in the FCS was impacted by players transferring or entering the 2021 NFL Draft, the Fighting Hawks did not lose any impact players.
Canady, a 2.5-year starter at safety who had 87 tackles in 2019, is one of five team captains. He said even though the team couldn’t fully meet during the summer and fall due to COVID, the captains held virtual meetings to keep everyone focused on the bigger picture and the goals the team wanted to accomplish.
Canady could have found a new home in the FBS like a lot of other FCS players, but the transfer portal wasn’t something he seriously entertained.
“You see a lot of FCS guys transferring on Twitter, but I thought it was best to stay with the team that stuck with me in the first place,” he said. “We’ve had a plan since we came up here, me and the senior class. We wanted to do something big and win a national championship. Winning this conference would be huge for us. We’ve been through ups and downs throughout my whole career here, so we’re looking to finish it strong.”
The team sticking together has paid dividends. UND is playing sound football to start this wacky spring season and looks like one of the most well-rounded teams in the subdivision. Aware of past letdown performances, Canady said players aren’t letting the national hype get to them. There’s probably not much time for that anyway, as this week is a short turnaround.
UND hosts No. 20 South Dakota on Thursday. The Coyotes are coming off of a huge win of their own, defeating then-No. 7 Illinois State 27-20. Kickoff is 5 p.m. CT on ESPN+.