2016 was a historic season for the University of North Dakota football program. They went undefeated in Big Sky Conference play to be conference champs, earned their first ever FCS Playoff berth, and they won the most games in the D1 era (9) and even earned a top 8 seed in the playoffs.
Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year
- Cole Reyes – S
1st Team All-Conference
- Michael Coe – OL
- John Santiago – RB & Returner
- Cole Reyes – S
- Deion Harris – CB
- Bubba Schweigert – Big Sky Coach of the Year – AFCA Region 5 Coach of the Year
2nd Team All-Conference
- Dylan Bakker – LB
- Reid Taubenheim – K
3rd Team All-Conference
- Brady Oliveira – RB
- Demon Taylor – OG
- Tank Harris – NG
- Noah Johnson – DE
Honorable Mention All-Conference
- Brian Labat – LB
- Torrey Hunt – CB
- Drew Greely – DE
- Brandon Dranka – DE
- Alex Reed – Specialist
- Emergence of freshman wide receivers. UND did not know who was going to be there go to guys at the WR spots coming into the 2016 season. Clive Georges was slotted as one starter but production was a question mark. When Georges went down in Week 1 with a gruesome leg injury, things got even murkier. Enter Travis Toivonen (6’3″) and Noah Wanzek (6’4″). The tall, lanky freshmen came out of nowhere to play the majority of the snaps for UND and produce big catch after big catch. Toivenen led UND with 39 receptions for 433 yards and 3 TD’s. Wanzek, who showed unbelievable hands and body control the entire year, caught 25 balls for 367 yards and 3 TD’s. Those two have a bright future.
- Evolution of QB Keaton Studsrud. Studsrud took another step forward this year as the leader of the UND offense. His numbers from the quarterback position will never be off the charts by design being OC Paul Rudolph doesn’t ask him to throw 40 times per game. Studsrud is asked to get UND in the right play with a check at the line of scrimmage, run the ball 3-4 times per game, and connect with his WR’s on short/intermediate throws that move the chains. Studsrud did all of that in 2016. He had a few rough patches at the start vs. Stony Brook and Bowling Green but began to pick it up from then on. In 2016, Studsrud was 150-268 for 2,027 yards and 14 TD’s vs. only 2 INT’s.
- The Emergence of Santiago and Oliveira. We all knew John Santiago was a game-breaking homerun type of running back (1,459 yds and 16 TDs in 2015). However, in 2016 UND consciously used both Santiago and Brady Oliveira equally throughout the year and it paid off. Santiago rushed for 983 yards and 7 TD’s. Oliveria rushed for 897 yards and 10 TD’s.
- Ball-Hawking Secondary. Over the years the UND secondary always seemed to struggle with catching interceptions or even putting themselves in position to get them. That all changed this year as UND led the nation in interceptions with 20. There will always be ample opportunities for INT’s because of the way UND aggressively stops the run, forcing teams to throw the ball. But, this year the UND secondary made those teams pay over and over.
- Ability to Comeback. UND started slowly in many games this year only to put on epic, all-time second half comebacks to win the game in dramatic fashion. Against Bowling Green, UND was down 14-0 early but came back and had a 2 pt conversion to win it slip through their hands. Against South Dakota, UND was down 34-17 in the 4th quarter only to rally and tie it up, eventually winning it in overtime 47-44. Against Northern Arizona, UND was down 31-10 in the middle of the 3rd quarter and furiously rallied for 28 straight points to win the game and the Big Sky Championship 38-31. This bodes well for the future as they now have confidence that they are never out of a game.
- All-Time Attendance Record. People started to notice the turnaround in 2015 and bought in for 2016. UND’s attendance rose from an average of 8,318 in 2015 to 9,944 in 2016.
- First-Ever FCS Playoff Berth/Seed. After getting hosed in 2015 for an at-large berth, UND definitely “left no doubt” in 2016 as they went 9-2 and rallied to win 9 straight games after beginning the year 0-2. This playoff experience will be valuable for the profram in the future.
- Inconsistency of OL play. Injuries no doubt played a part in this, but that’s part of the challenge for every team each season. The UND offense hangs it hat on running the ball and controlling the clock/tempo of the game. Too many times this year they struggled to get the running game going until well into the 3rd and 4th quarter. They did average 208 yds/game rushing but it seemed like an inconsistent 208 yards. UND averaged 240 yds on the ground in 2015. Continue to build depth here with quality and quantity through recruiting every year to help alleviate this.
- Lack of RB screen game. Being that UND runs the ball so often throughout the year, defenses have pinned their ears back on 3rd down in obvious passing situations. The UND offense doesn’t have a screen game to slow that down from the backfield. Common “slip screens” where the RB sneaks out to the flat and follows a 1/2 lineman, or the “swing screen” where the RB releases wide immediately to the perimeter would be great plays and a way to slow down the opposing defenses on 3rd down. Also, helps having the RB talent UND has to run and execute this. The RB screen game has to be an emphasis for the offense in spring ball so that they can successfully run it with confidence next season.
- Special Teams – Big Plays Against. UND lost two games that a person can directly relate to abnormal plays made against them in the special teams game. First, Stony Brook blocked a punt in the 4th quarter and returned it for a touchdown to go up 13-9. UND never scored again and lost the game. Second, Richmond blocked a punt that allowed them a quick three points after converting the field goal from the outstanding field position gained by the block. UND also ran into the punter vs. Richmond that seemingly set off a chain of events leading the Spiders to their 27-24 comeback victory. Also, Southern Utah returned a kickoff for a touchdown vs UND.
- Pass Defense – Big Plays. For being a “good” defense, far too many big pass plays were given up this season. Big plays will happen, but the UND secondary needs to be better at not allowing the homerun and at least make the other team snap it again instead of giving up the long TDs. Also need to be better in jump ball situations.
- Inconsistent Kicking. Both Reid Taubenheim and Austin Dussold had very good moments and overall both had pretty solid years. However, both were inconsistent and cost UND points/field position. Dussold (42 yd avg) was excellent at pinning teams deep all year. But, he was kicking low trajectory punts later in the year when backed up, allowing teams great field position. Taubenheim went 16-25 on field goals but was only 4-10 from 40-49 yards. That needs to improve.
2016 was a year to remember for UND football fans. Their #1 goal since day one of the Bubba Schweigert administration was to win the Big Sky Championship and advance to the playoffs. They reached that goal. We don’t think the goals change any other than the players will now want that first playoff victory after coming oh so close vs. Richmond. We anticipate annual playoff berths to be the norm from here on out. The expectation is there and that’s a good thing. As a result of that progression, deep playoff runs and ultimately National Championship talk isn’t and shouldn’t be too far behind over the next few years.
This 2016 squad was fun, entertaining, and a hard-working group. They reached some of their goals but had a tough ending. Just like they learned from last years playoff snub, they will too learn from this year’s playoff loss.
The gradual momentum that has been built up over the last 3 seasons is promising. It has peaked again this year and should be higher yet again next season.
We cannot tell you how proud we are of the senior class, coaching staff and the entire team for the step they took this season. It was a wild ride and a ton of fun.
Time to take the next step.
Let us know your thoughts on the 2016 season….