FARGO — When Chris Willis left the Fargodome last year, he knew his North Alabama football team would have to get bigger.
Nearly one year later, North Alabama is indeed bigger as it enters its second year of transition from the NCAA Division II level to the Football Championship Subdivision level. The increased size, and the ever-present speed, was on display last week when North Alabama claimed a surprising 26-17 win over Western Illinois.
“We may not have the size of a North Dakota State yet, but we actually have some size now — a lot more than we are accustomed to,” Willis said. “We will always use North Dakota State as a measuring stick. I think we have come a long way since that game.”
North Alabama, trailing only 17-0 at halftime, lost to the Bison 38-7 last year and finished the season with a 7-3 record. The next challenge for North Alabama, which becomes eligible for the FCS playoffs in 2022, is playing nothing but FCS teams this year — including Saturday’s game at No. 23 Montana in front of 25,000 fans.
“Montana will be a better team than Western Illinois … maybe Montana will be looking ahead to Oregon a little bit,” Willis said in reference to Montana’s Sept. 14 game at Oregon. “We hope to take the North Dakota State experience and learn from that. At North Dakota State, I think we were caught up in the wow factor a little bit.”
North Alabama certainly wowed the 10,567 fans who showed up for a Thursday-night season opener at Braly Stadium in Florence — the same field where NDSU won three Division II championships. At one point, North Alabama was a 24½-point underdog against Western Illinois.
North Alabama never trailed against the Missouri Valley Conference school that reached the FCS playoffs two years ago.
“It was certainly motivation,” Willis said of the point spread. “We knew we would be the underdog just like we will be this week. But we didn’t understand why by that much of a spread.”
Willis also doesn’t understand why his quarterback, senior Christian Lopez, did not receive any preseason honors from the Southland Conference. Lopez, who completed 7 of 18 passes for 53 yards in a backup role against NDSU last year, completed 17 of 32 passes for 290 yards against Western Illinois — including a 75-yard touchdown pass.
Sophomore wide receiver Cortez Hall had his third straight 100-yard receiving game and senior running back Terence Humphrey ran for 102 yards — including a 62-yard touchdown run.
North Alabama, which had only nine turnovers last season, had none against Western Illinois.
“It gives you a chance to win the game,” Willis said. “All I wanted was to get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game.”
With only two returning starters, North Alabama’s defense limited Western Illinois’ offense to 10 points. Western Illinois’ third score came off a blocked punt for a touchdown.
“Our defensive line is a lot better than last year’s group,” Willis said. “We are a lot deeper with only one senior.”
But a linebacking corps that is not as deep and a young secondary could be tested against a Montana team that displayed a potent passing game in last week’s 31-7 win at South Dakota. Quarterback Dalton Sneed completed 37 of 52 passes for 430 yards and three touchdowns.
“The quarterback and receivers seem to be their bell cow,” Willis said of Montana. “Montana is a great program. Again, I hope we can keep it close and give us a chance to win in the fourth quarter.”