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UND football hoping to string together wins as window for playoff berth narrows

The Fighting Hawks host Western Illinois on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Alerus Center.

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UND running back Isaiah Smith works for yardage as Drake defenders, Ty Scott, left, and Jeran Proctor try to tackle him near the endzone in the first half Saturday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

UND safety Jordan Canady has been with the program since 2016.

Canady has the historical perspective to compare UND's 2017 season and the fall of 2021.

Both times, UND went on a challenging three-game losing streak early in the year.

In 2017, UND couldn't recover and went 3-8 in the worst season of the Bubba Schweigert Era.

Canady doesn't feel this fall has those same vibes.

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"We're battling and showing heart," Canady said. "We have to execute more plays. You make mistakes against good teams, they're going to take advantage in this league. We just have to bounce back. There's an opportunity to run the table. There's a lot of football in front of us."

In 2017, as injuries mounted following a 2016 Big Sky Conference championship, UND lost 45-7 at South Dakota, 49-21 at home to Montana State and 48-24 at UC Davis.

The Fighting Hawks in 2021 have shown greater signs of breaking through. UND's three Missouri Valley Football Conference losses have come by a combined 16 points.

UND has also faced the nation's No. 3, No. 4 and No. 15-ranked opponents, with two of those coming on the road and the game at home coming against North Dakota State, winners of 8 of the last 10 national titles.

"You lose three tough ones, all under seven points to good football teams," UND wide receiver Jack Wright said. "As a team, we're confident and sticking together. A few more plays in those games, you could be 3-0 at the top of the conference. It's tough losing but it's also giving us motivation. We're confident we can finish the season on a good run. We're shooting for that playoff berth. We're confident that's an option for this team, and we're going to give it all we've got these last five weeks."

After starting league play against three teams in the Top 15, UND now has three of its next four games in the Alerus Center. All three remaining home games come against unranked opponents in Western Illinois, Youngstown State and Illinois State. UND, however, does have to play road games at No. 17 Missouri State and No. 6 South Dakota State.

"Coach talks about staying close as a group and not pointing fingers," Wright said. "It's a team effort. We're going to keep sticking together, and we've got a really good group of football players. The record isn't what we want or reflect the team we have. This last five weeks that's all we've got guaranteed -- 20 quarters of football. We're going to go out and give it our all these last 20 quarters."

UND will have to try to start a winning streak with a banged-up lineup. UND running back Isaiah Smith, who has run for more than 100 yards twice in the absence of starter Otis Weah, was injured late in last Saturday's game at Southern Illinois. Smith is questionable this week.

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Nose guard Jalen Morrison, linebacker Josh Navratil and kicker Adam Stage are also questionable.

The Hawks, though, are hoping to get a couple of wide receivers back in the lineup, as well as Weah. After missing practices last week with an illness, Weah is back practicing and is expected to play Saturday.

UND also has Garett Maag and Christian Cochran -- starters who were both injured in Week 1 -- returning to practice this week and are expected to play Saturday.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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