From the end of the 2019 season to Saturday, UND football fans waited 448 days for the start of the Missouri Valley Football Conference era.

The product at the Alerus Center was worth the wait.

UND dominated the line of scrimmage and the turnover battle in beating No. 24 Southern Illinois 44-21 in front of 3,176 fans.

Capacity was limited to 4,000 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"You have to run the football and defend the run," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We know in this league that'll be a challenge."

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At least for one game, though, UND made it look easy. The Fighting Hawks outgained Southern Illinois on the ground 229 to 90.

Running back Otis Weah, who was ineligible in the 2019 season, led the way with 13 carries for 91 yards, while Luke Skokna, who was injured for the first half of the 2019 season, ran nine times for 77 yards.

"Extremely disappointed in the outcome," Southern Illinois coach Nick Hill said. "Speaking the obvious, we got our butts whooped. Didn't expect that."

UND redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster did what he was asked of in his starting debut. He was 15-for-23 passing for 118 yards and three touchdowns.

But UND's defense, in the defensive coordinator debut for Brett Holinka, was the story, with Evan Holm and Sammy Fort collecting interceptions and linebacker Devon Krzanowski returning a fumble 36 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter.

Krzanowski, a first-year transfer from now-defunct St. Cloud State, sparked the defense with his play. He finished with six tackles including two for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Krzanowski's return came after cornerback C.J. Siegel blindside blitzed SIU quarterback Kare Lyles, who fumbled and hurt his rib on the play. Lyles didn't return and backup Nic Baker threw two interceptions in his absence.

"Defensively, once we got settled into the game a bit and got our rotations down, we were pretty good against the run," Schweigert said.

It didn't look good early, as SIU marched on its opening possession. Justin Strong capped an 11-play, 84-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown catch from Lyles for a quick 7-0 Saluki lead.

"The start surprised us a little bit with the fast tempo," Schweigert said. "That's hard to practice, but I think we adjusted to it pretty well after that first drive and settled down in that first half."

UND countered with 16 straight points thanks to a Schuster 4-yard touchdown pass to fullback Brett Finke, a 27-yard field goal from St. Cloud State transfer Adam Stage and Krzanowski's fumble return.

However, UND only went to the locker room with a 16-14 advantage as the Salukis scored before half on a quick drive, led by Baker. Romeir Elliott punched in a 1-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds left in the second quarter to make it a two-point game.

The Hawks scored the first 28 points of the second half, as UND's running game started to pick up, especially with Weah and Skokna. Weah averaged 7.0 yards per carry, with Skokna averaging 7.8.

Weah scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 23-14, Dalton Gee caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Schuster to make it 30-14 and rookie Bo Belquist caught his first career touchdown pass -- a 9-yard slant in a tight window from Schuster to make it 37-14 with 1:25 left in the third quarter.

Skokna finished off the UND scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

SIU's Javon Williams Jr., who was expected to be the featured offensive weapon for the Salukis, ended the game with 13 carries for 29 yards.

"Everyone was doing their job," Krzanowski said. "We knew they wanted to run the ball on us, so we were preaching stop the run and that's what we did today."

UND's offense clicked despite missing wide receiver and wildcat quarterback Brock Boltmann, who missed the game with an injury.

"He's getting better," Schweigert said. "We got good news that he'll be back this spring sometime. Initially when he went down, we didn't know. We're hoping that he really accelerates in his recovery, and we get him back soon."

UND, which starts the season with three straight at home, now will face South Dakota State on Saturday at noon.