GRAND FORKS — When the University of North Dakota went to Huntsville, Texas, last year and beat Sam Houston State, the Fighting Hawks ran 45 times and used the combination of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira to run for 187 yards and two touchdowns as a team.
It's the type of ground game the 2019 version of the Hawks are still searching for as they face a rematch with the No. 24 Bearkats on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 4 p.m. at the Alerus Center in the annual Potato Bowl.
"First and second down, we have to manufacture four or five yards," UND first-year offensive coordinator Danny Freund said. "I don't think we've had a lot of negative plays, but we have to have more explosive plays there, and we have to be more committed to (the run game). We have to establish that, so we can set up the play-action pass."
UND, behind seniors Santiago and Oliveira, averaged 227.5 yards per game rushing in 2018. In the offseason, the Hawks made a change at offensive coordinator and switched to a more pass-friendly offense.
Despite that larger emphasis on the passing game, UND is still trying to get on track in the run game. The Hawks are averaging 102 rushing yards per game through two weeks of the 2019 season, which ranks 86th nationally. One of those two games, however, was against one of the FCS' top defenses in North Dakota State.
"We obviously want to run the football effectively, and we think we can do that," UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We have to find ways to spread the ball out to as many people as we can and use our weapons. We're going to continue to keep evaluating that and find ways to run the football effectively."
With senior center Patric Rooney missing the first two games of the season with an injury, UND's starting offensive line doesn't have a senior. Freund, however, has been pleased with the progress of the offensive line under first-year coach Joe Pawlak.
"I think our offensive line has done a nice job getting a push," Freund said. "We have to be more consistent on first down and work on our core plays. We have to simplify some stuff."
The Hawks' effort to replace two of the best running backs in the program's Division I era in Santiago and Oliveira has been a slow process thus far.
UND's leading rusher, Dalton Gee, wasn't expected to be a major part of the offense in 2019, but his 45-yard run against Drake is one of the few explosive plays in the run game for the Hawks. Gee has 14 carries for 83 yards.
Starter James Johannesson has 15 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. He's averaging 4.0 yards per carry but has a long run of just 9 yards so far.
"We have to be a lot better on first down and stay out of second- and third-and-long," Freund said. "There's something to build off, but we really have to take a step this week in terms of consistency and a drive to get better."