LOOKING AHEAD FOR ISU FOOTBALL: Week one, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Sep 16, 2023; Boise, Idaho, USA; North Dakota Fighting Hawks head coach Bubba Schweigert looks on during the first half against the Boise State Broncos at Albertsons Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is the first in a 12-part summer series previewing each of Iowa State’s 2024 regular-season opponents.

AMES — North Dakota will become Iowa State’s latest Missouri Valley Football Conference foe to play in a season opener at Jack Trice Stadium this fall.

 It will be the first meeting between the schools — but the Matt Campbell-led Cyclones will begin a season against an MVFC opponent for the ninth time in the past 11 seasons when kickoff commences at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 31.

 It’s usually a topsy-turvy early-season ride for ISU, which lost twice to Northern Iowa and once to North Dakota State in that span, while seeing one season opener against South Dakota State canceled because of never-ending lighting strikes.

 But what type of challenge may the Fighting Hawks pose to the Cyclones? 

 Possibly a stern one. North Dakota’s advanced to the FCS playoffs in two of its first three seasons as a member of the MVFC — and last season fell to Sacramento State, 42-35, in a first-round playoff matchup at home.

 Longtime head coach Bubba Schweigert could have a difficult time guiding the Fighting Hawks back into postseason play this season. Just three starters return on defense, along with six on offense.

 Leading rusher Gaven Ziebarth (107 rushes, 700 yards, nine touchdowns) and leading receiver Bo Belquist (66 catches, 772 yards, six touchdowns) return for the Fighting Hawks, but the team must replace starting quarterback, Tommy Schuster, who transferred after four successful seasons. 6-3, 200-pound junior Trey Feeney looks to replace him in the starting lineup. 

 Iowa State vs. North Dakota: 3 things to watch

 **Can the Cyclones’ experienced-laden defense dominate the game? ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s fielded a top-three Big 12 defense in each of the past seven seasons and North Dakota is breaking in a new offensive coordinator in Isaac Fruechte, as well as a new starting quarterback. The Cyclones’ back end is loaded with playmakers such as Jeremiah Cooper and Beau Freyler, so if the defensive line can produce significant pressure, takeaways could come in bunches.

 **Will ISU be able to establish the run? It was feast or famine for the Cyclones’ rushing game last season and it was very difficult to predict whether that part of the offense would thrive or founder. It’s imperative to set the tone up front against the Fighting Hawks’ largely inexperienced defense. 

 **Can the Cyclones start hot? The offense in particular has been sluggish out of the gate in head coach Matt Campbell’s first eight seasons, but given ISU’s multitude of weapons in the backfield (Abu Sama) and at receiver and tight end (Ben Brahmer, Jayden Higgins, Jaylin Noel), quarterback Rocco Becht could put up big numbers. 

First-glance prediction

 ISU will roll in this one unless the offensive line struggles against the undersized and inexperienced Fighting Hawks’ defense. North Dakota’s a solid FCS program on par with Northern Iowa, but if the Cyclones are truly capable of challenging for a Big 12 title this season, they should seize control early and put this game away by halftime.