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A closer look at UND football's penalty woes

UND has committed 14 false starts in five games.

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UND linebacker Ted Mullin hits NDSU quarterback as he throws a pass Saturday at the Alerus Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The UND football team in the spring of 2021 won a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in part due to the team's discipline. The Fighting Hawks were one the of the least penalized teams in the entire FCS.

Last spring, UND finished fourth in the FCS with 3.43 penalties per game.

Yet, less than a year later, UND's discipline has been called into question this fall as penalties have plagued an offense that has scored just one touchdown in each of the last two weeks.

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"It is frustrating," UND wide receiver Jake Richter said. "It gets us out of rhythm a bit. I trust everyone on our team and other guys feel the same way. We have to attack it more in practice and be more technical. The false starts and the fumbles ... we have to protect the ball and keep moving forward."

UND's 3.4 penalties per game in the spring has risen to 5.8 penalties per game this year. It's perhaps not the total number of penalties that is at issue -- UND actually ranks 45th nationally in fewest penalties per game -- but the timeliness of the penalties and the frustrating nature of false starts and illegal procedures.

"It's just being cleaner, ultimately," Richter said. "In this league, you can't make the mistakes we've been making every week. I know we'll turn that ship around. We'll get after it in practice this week. I'm excited for it, and we'll get rolling."

Of UND's 29 penalties, 14 have been false starts. The false starts have been committed by 10 different players. The Hawks' tight ends have accounted for six of the false starts, led by sophomore Billy Riviere's three false starts.

So how does UND's offense go from playing clean football in the spring to a reputation for undisciplined play in the fall?

Part of the issue can likely be tied to youth and inexperience. From the spring roster, UND lost center and captain Nathan Nguon and guards Ryan Tobin and Kyle Hergel.

Then in fall camp, UND lost projected starting center Peyton Lotysz to an injury. Lotysz is still sidelined with the injury.

To counter, UND moved transfer offensive lineman Babak Ghadaksaz from guard to center, despite most of his experience at Portland State coming at guard.

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UND's tight ends and fullbacks are also in some new roles. The Hawks lost tight end Derek Paulson from the spring when he transferred to Miami of Ohio. At fullback, Brett Finke moved on after graduation.

Of the 14 false starts, 10 were committed by freshmen and sophomores. With two of the false starts coming from inexperienced juniors in wide receiver Jacob Odom and offensive lineman Ben Christian, only two of the 14 false starts are attributed to veterans (Donny Ventrelli against Utah State and Matt Waletzko against South Dakota).

"Eliminating the penalties is a must against teams of this caliber," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "You really are going to play against good, athletic defenses. You have to give yourself the best chance by avoiding penalties."

The No. 22 Fighting Hawks face No. 4 Southern Illinois on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Carbondale.

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