Is UND's young offensive line ready for the physicality of North Dakota State?
The Fighting Hawks are tied with Southern Illinois as the youngest offensive line in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. UND starts a senior, three sophomores and a freshman up front.
GRAND FORKS — UND, North Dakota State and South Dakota State have established themselves as the top three teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference so far in 2022.
There's one area, though, the Fighting Hawks don't resemble the other two league foes. NDSU and SDSU have veteran offensive lines. UND is tied for the youngest offensive line in the league with Southern Illinois.
The Fighting Hawks start one senior, three sophomores and a freshman.
NDSU starts three seniors and two juniors. SDSU starts two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.
UND's young offensive line will be put to the test both by opponent and atmosphere when the No. 16 Fighting Hawks visit No. 4 NDSU on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the Fargodome.
The Bison have built an FCS superpower on the back of physicality and a reputation for defending the home turf. Can UND's youth handle that?
"It's something we become accustomed to with how we train in practice," UND offensive line coach Joe Pawlak said about an ability for a young position group to handle a physical opponent. "I think with how we go about our business through fall camp and practice, we're accustomed to it and don't know anything else. As far as playing physical, it has to develop in practice. You keep a consistency in the routine and work ethic every day."
UND didn't feel it was good enough on the offensive line a year ago.
The negative momentum started coming out of the spring season in 2021 when interior offensive linemen Ryan Tobin and Nathan Nguon elected to retire, while Kyle Hergel hit the transfer portal. Hergel now plays at Texas State.
Leading up to 2021, the Fighting Hawks were planning to start then-freshman center Peyton Lotysz leading up to fall camp. After Lotysz was injured in camp, UND moved Portland State transfer Babak Ghadaksaz to center.
Then UND patched holes from there, trying a number of players in different roles.
When UND started the season at Nebraska, the Hawks played three first-time Division I starters.
"I think they keep getting better and that's what we appreciate about Coach Pawlak and the guys in that room," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "This week will be another big challenge for our guys. We felt after 2021 we needed to get better up front and we've done that. We then challenged our guys to continue to improve throughout the season."
UND's line play is anchored by the experience of senior left tackle Donny Ventrelli, as well as the youthful experience of sophomore guard Easton Kilty.
The Hawks picked up two key transfers then to fill two spots with junior college addition Brayden Bryant at guard and North Dakota State transfer Seth Anderson at tackle.
A week ago, UND's jelling offensive line was thrown a curveball as Lotysz was injured at practice and is now ruled out for the season. The Hawks turned to freshman Danny Carroll, who started against Nebraska before snapping issues caused UND to make a change early in 2022.
Schweigert said UND was pleased with Carroll's performance against South Dakota last Saturday.
"The guys have a lot of faith in (Carroll), and we have a lot of faith in him," Schweigert said. "We constantly talk to our guys about how they're one play away. He'll be ready for Saturday."
With UND's abundance in youth, Pawlak said it's exciting to see their hunger to improve.
"All five of the guys, we're seeing improvement from Week 1 to now," Pawlak said. "They're getting better every week. Your best football is played in November. All that development and training leads to your best physicality and pad level. The good offensive lines show up in November."
This won't be UND's first experience with a noisy atmosphere. The Hawks started the season at the University of Nebraska in front of 86,590 fans.
"Cadence will be a big thing," Ventrelli said. "We'll have to use a lot of different ones. But we had 85,000 in Nebraska, and I think we handled that challenge pretty well.
"(The Bison) are physical, like a lot of Missouri Valley teams ... it's a physical league. We're going to have to be prepared for it."