MISSOULA — Before the season started, North Dakota looked like the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference football race.
The Fighting Hawks were pegged the preseason favorite to win the league and returned All-Big Sky talent in reigning Defensive Player of the Year Cole Reyes. Four of his teammates — running back Brady Oliveira, cornerback Deion Harris, multi-purpose running back and return specialist John Santiago and offensive guard Demon Taylor — were named to the preseason all-Big Sky team as well.
But a lot has changed since mid-July.
Reyes has missed the last two games due to injury and will be sidelined for Saturday's game. Harris is out for the season after he sustained a lower-leg injury during a conditioning workout over the summer.
In recent developments, Taylor — and fellow teammate Andre Randolph —was kicked off the team this week after being arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Taylor had another charge of possession of drug paraphernalia for manufacturing marijuana.
North Dakota is 2-4 this season, with its two wins coming against a 1-4 Missouri State team and a 2-3 Northern Colorado team.
What happened to the team that shared the league title last season?
Injuries. Injuries happened.
Reyes and Harris aren't the only two North Dakota playmakers to go down.
According to this week's injury report, three other players — Kyle Norberg, Josh Seibel and Donnell Rodgers — are out indefinitely.
Norberg is a senior fullback who started eight games last season and the first game this year. Seibel is a senior wide receiver who spent last season nursing a knee injury. Rodgers is a sophomore linebacker who started the first two games of the season.
The injuries don't stop there. Six Fighting Hawks are also listed as questionable for Saturday's game, including three starters — defensive back Tamas Stewart, offensive lineman A.J. Stockwell and linebacker Jake Disterhaupt.
Scouting UND's offense
RB/KR John Santiago: Anyone sleeping on Santiago lives under a rock. He's a preseason first-team All-American for his kick return skills and was preseason all-Big Sky as both a kick returner and running back.
The junior has lived up to expectations. He's accumulated three touchdowns and 417 yards rushing this season. His rushing numbers are 31st in the FCS and seventh in the Big Sky.
He can easily break into the open field with his explosive speed. He has the longest play from scrimmage for the Fighting Hawks this season — an 88-yard touchdown run against UC Davis. He also had a 39-yard touchdown against UC Davis.
In terms of kick returns, Santiago has 419 yards for an average of 23.3 yards per return. He ranks second in the league and 40th in the FCS.
Keeping him contained on kickoffs will be key. He's had five kickoff returns for more than 25 yards. His longest of 66 yards came in North Dakota's loss to South Dakota.
QB Keaton Studsrud: Studsrud is a fourth-year starter for the Fighting Hawks. That level of familiarity with an offense is always a big asset.
This season Studsrud has completed 91 of 156 passes for 1,113 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions. On the ground, Studsrud has scrambled for a net gain of 152 yards on 41 carries, ranking him third on the team in behind Santiago and Oliveira.
Scouting UND's defense
LB Jake Disterhaupt: Disterhaupt is a catalyst for North Dakota's defense. He's listed as questionable for Saturday, but if there's any way the senior can play, he's going to. At this point he's a player North Dakota can't really afford to lose. He sat out last week in North Dakota's win over Northern Colorado.
Disterhaupt leads the team in total tackles with 51. That's a mark that's sixth in the conference, just above Montana's Josh Buss. His average of 10.2 tackles per game ranks him 17th in the FCS.
LB Jade Lawrence: Lawrence is North Dakota's leader in tackles for loss and sacks. He has racked up 6½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks as North Dakota's top blitzer in its 3-4 defense.