The UND run game has been a work in progress this season as the Fighting Hawks have juggled interior offensive line combinations and dealt with the occasional absence of preseason All-American running back Otis Weah.

In UND's first two games this month -- losses to North Dakota State and South Dakota -- UND ran for 113 yards and 50 yards, respectively.

Those are the two lowest totals in UND's brief Missouri Valley Football Conference era.

With Weah expected back in the lineup for Saturday's 2 p.m. kickoff and Western Illinois coming to Grand Forks with the 109th-ranked run defense, is this the week the Fighting Hawks can put it all together on the ground?

Even without Weah last Saturday at Southern Illinois, UND appeared to find more traction in the run game and finished with 189 rushing yards.

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"I thought our guys had a good demeanor," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We challenged (the offensive line) that we have to run the football better. We have to keep improving on that. We missed some opportunities the previous two weeks. We still have to run it more consistently."

One of UND's big hurdles offensively early in the season was penalties. The Hawks had 14 false starts in the team's first five games including four in the first half at South Dakota.

Against SIU, UND was flagged three times for 18 yards.

"We had less penalties and less negative plays," Schweigert said. "We didn't turn the ball over the last two weeks. We just have to take the next step and make plays to get the lead and win games."

Western Illinois enters the matchup giving up 201.7 yards, which ranks 109th of 123 FCS programs listed in the official national stats. To compare, NDSU ranks sixth nationally at 71.0 yards per game and USD is 10th at 87.9.

But can the Hawks seize the opportunity with depth concerns at running back this week? Although Weah is expected to play, backups Isaiah Smith and Luke Skokna couldn't play in the late moments against Southern Illinois due to injuries.

That leaves walk-on Wyoming transfer Austin Clemetson and true freshman Gaven Ziebarth for the remaining opportunities in the backfield.

Schweigert was asked this week about the status of Weah, who didn't practice last week and didn't travel to Carbondale due to illness. Earlier this season, Weah was benched against Drake as team discipline.

"We need guys to practice," Schweigert said. "The guys who practice will get the opportunity to play."

Western Illinois at North Dakota

Kickoff: 2 p.m., Saturday.

Where: Alerus Center, Grand Forks.

TV: Midco Sports (GF Channel 27), Alex Heinert play-by-play, Ryan Kasowski analyst.

Radio: 96.1 FM (Jack Michaels on play-by-play, Mike Berg analyst, Paul Ralston sidelines).

Streaming: ESPN-Plus.

Betting line: N/A.

Injuries: Running back and kicker are UND's biggest injury concerns right now. In the final 90 seconds last Saturday at Southern Illinois, UND was without Isaiah Smith and Luke Skokna in the backfield. Both are questionable against Western Illinois. UND's available backs are expected to be Otis Weah, walk-on Austin Clemetson and true freshman Gaven Ziebarth. At wide receiver, UND is hoping to see two players rejoin the lineup in Garett Maag and Christian Cochran. Both were banged up in Week 1 against Idaho State. Cochran hasn't played since then and Maag has been shut down the past two weeks in an attempt to heal a hamstring injury. Nose guard Jalen Morrison and kicker Adam Stage are both doubtful to play against the Leathernecks.

The Fighting Hawks will win if the defense can limit big plays. Western Illinois will rely almost exclusively on a passing game as the Leathernecks rush for about 70 yards per game and ran for just 30 last weekend. UND's pass rush has hit its stride in recent weeks with three sacks of South Dakota quarterback Carson Camp and four sacks of Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker. Offensively, UND is hoping for a big bounceback performance from Otis Weah, who missed his second game of the season last weekend. Weah's production will be extra important, as he's going up against the Missouri Valley's worst run defense but also because the Fighting Hawks could be without backs Luke Skokna and Isaiah Smith -- the two primary runners when Weah has missed time.

The Leathernecks will win if UND's kicking game presents problems as the Fighting Hawks might still need to use backup Brady Stevens, who missed two field goals in the final three minutes last Saturday. If Western Illinois is able to protect quarterback Connor Sampson, the 'Necks have plenty of talent at the wide receiver position.