North Dakota’s next.
I know the Fighting Hawks are 6-1 against Central Washington, 4-0 against the shuttered Western Washington program and 1-1 against UPS, but fodder for the Washington Huskies? C’mon.
OK, North Dakota -- not to be confused with 13-time, small-school national champion North Dakota State and the one-time football home for NFL quarterback Carson Wentz – certainly can use the athletic department budget boost that Husky Stadium game receipts will generously provide, but it’s time to do away with these kinds of college football mismatches. They’re not interesting. They’re not worth their portion of the expensive Washington football season ticket. They’re an excuse for the local fans to leave early or not show up at all.
The only real question for the Huskies going into Saturday’s kickoff is will Jake Browning and his buddies play two and a half quarters or go the full three periods normally reserved for starters in a blowout over an overmatched opponent from the college game's second tier? Will the third-string running back get into the end zone? Will the UW win by 30 or 40 points?
I’m not here to disparage this fine institution from Middle America—one that has provided us with NBA coach Phil Jackson, astronaut Karen Nyberg and a slew of other highly accomplished individuals—but it’s foremost a hockey school, with Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks captain and a three-time Stanley Cup winner, likely it’s most revered alumnus. Washington wouldn’t stand a chance against North Dakota on the ice, similar to what’s going happen in reverse on the football field.
The North Dakota football team has beaten just one FBS school in its history—upsetting Wyoming 24-13 in 2015. It is 0-20 against neighboring Minnesota, failing to score in 13 of those encounters (to be clear, the last meeting between the two schools took place in 1974). The Fighting Hawks took it on the chin from Utah 37-16 last year. They lost to San Jose State 41-10 in 2014. They got slapped around by Texas Tech 38-13 in 2009.
North Dakota, coached by Bubba Schweigert, recently left the Big Sky Conference as a full-fledged member and non-voting participant so it can enter the Missouri Valley Conference for football in 2020—and play against the neighborhood teams it should be facing: North Dakota State, South Dakota State and South Dakota.
Once World War II ended, the NCAA’s biggest schools played only each other for the longest time. Yet that practice began to erode around the country and, in 1971, during the height of the Sixkiller era, Washington curiously scheduled the University of California at Santa Barbara, the first in a long list of head-scratching opponents. People still talk about that one—how it could have been so much worse than the 65-7 outcome. The Gauchos tried to become a top-tier football school but couldn’t pull it off and eventually dropped the program twice, the last time for good.
The Huskies through the years have treated their fans to non-conference schedules filled with plenty of headliners. Sonny Sixkiller actually opened his career in 1970 with non-conference games against Michigan State, Michigan and Navy. In 1994, Washington met Ohio State, Miami and San Jose State. A year later, it was Ohio State, Army and Notre Dame. In 2008, the Huskies played BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
Over the past decade, however, Washington—like nearly every other Power 5 team except still-proud Notre Dame—has unapologetically capped off it schedules with FCS teams. Gimmes. Breathers. Guaranteed victories. Who could forget the Huskies’ 52-13 win over Portland State in 2012? Their 56-0 thrashing of Idaho State in 2013? Their 45-14 beat-down of Georgia State in 2014? Their 49-0 muscling of Sacramento State in 2015? Or their 63-7 bruising of Montana last year?
Asked if FBS teams will ever revert to simply playing each other, Huskies coach Chris Petersen, who helped take Boise State from a football afterthought to worthy opponent at any level, offered this, “It’s not like the NFL, where you have 32 teams on a level playing field.” Which likely means no.
Light scheduling almost cost playoff-bound Washington two years ago—when it beat Portland State 41-3 and soon-to-be-FCS Idaho 59-14—and the selection committee had to think long and hard about letting the Huskies in.
No doubt North Dakota will enjoy this trip to Seattle—up until kickoff. Two of the Fighting Hawks, wide receiver Cam McKinney from Garfield High and quarterback Andrew Zimmerman from Monroe, should have plenty of friends and family in the seats. But it won’t be a pleasant experience once the whistle blows.
The Fighting Hawks are rebuilding after a 3-8 showing in 2017 and four losing seasons in the past six years. They play in a 12,283-seat stadium, which means they’ll be wide-eyed looking back at all that Husky Stadium humanity staring down at them. They haven’t had an NFL draft pick since 2006, which means they’ll surely be intimidated by the size and speed sent their way. They used to play for the Sitting Bull Trophy—now they’ll find out what it’s like to be at Custer’s Last Stand.