The last time we saw Otis Weah carry the ball on a football field, it was Sept. 29, 2018, in Greeley, Colo., in a Fighting Hawks blowout win against Northern Colorado.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference saw the return of both — UND's running game and Weah — Saturday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. The result was not good for Southern Illinois, one of the teams considered to be an up-and-comer in the Valley.
UND hammered the 24th-ranked Salukis 44-21, scoring 28 straight points to open the second half behind a resurrected ground game and a swarming defense that forced five turnovers and rendered SIU's vaunted running game all but moot.
"We got our butts whupped. Didn't expect that," Salukis head coach Nick Hill said.
It was UND's first game in the Valley after years of playing the shadows in the Big Sky Conference, and if there was an expectation in the Football Championship Subdivision that the Fighting Hawks were going to get a rude awakening in the division's best league, it was 180 degrees wrong.
UND punched, the Salukis were out cold before they hit the turf and this goofy spring college football season is off to an eyebrow-raising start.
"They wore us out completely and dominated the second half," Hill said.
The formula was familiar for UND, even if the familiarity had to be rekindled after a few years of being AWOL. The Hawks ran the ball and played defense, a recipe that works in any conference at any level.
UND ran for 229 yards against the Salukis, its highest total since Oct. 20, 2018, when the Hawks went for 490 against a sad-sack Sacramento State outfit.
In 2019, UND's most recent season, it rushed for less than 100 yards in half its games.
That team, a 7-5 squad that got manhandled in a first-round playoff game at Nicholls State in Louisiana, could do little against physical teams. Besides all but abandoning the run in the bayou, getting those 44 yards on just 14 carries, the Hawks couldn't stop the run, either. The Colonels ran at will up the middle, rolling to 316 yards and a dominant time-of-possession edge.
UND's top running back was James Johannesson, a massive block of granite who exhibited the same amount of wiggle. Johannesson was going straight ahead or nowhere at all.
The difference between that running game and the one displayed Saturday was stark. Part of it is the increased experience and size of UND's offensive line, but it helps to have some shake and speed in the backfield, too.
Cue Weah, mostly. The Moorhead High School product gashed SIU for 91 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Luke Skokna and Dalton Gee contributed, too, but the former Spud brought some energy and power the Hawks' ground game has sorely missed the last couple of seasons.
All this from a guy who hadn't carried the ball for 2 1/2 years after playing a few games as a true freshman and then missing all of 2019 because he was academically ineligible. UND didn't play any games in the COVID-crushed fall of 2020, so it had been awhile since Weah saw game action.
"I wasn't excited or anything. It was just another day with the guys, doing what we have to do," Weah said. "It was special, but just don't show it as much."
There is abundant skill with Weah, exhibited not only by his speed but by his strength. He said he brings "juice" to the UND offense, and was a load for the Salukis to tackle, on two occasions in the second half shedding a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage and getting big yards. Midway through the third quarter, Weah spun out of a tackle and sprinted for 21 yards before getting taken down at the SIU 1. He scored on the next play.
"Good speed, powerful, hard to tackle," UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We expect him to keep getting better. He hasn't played much. We played him a little bit his true freshman year and then he didn't play at all last year and here we are in the spring of 2021. We'd like to see him keep staying hungry and getting better.
"He brings something to the offensive side. He's hard to tackle, he has good acceleration and he'll run low to the ground. The best thing about him is that he loves football. Man, he loves football."
Weah did drop a sure and easy touchdown catch from quarterback Tommy Schuster in the first half — took his eyes off the ball — but that is easily forgotten. The spring 2021 edition of the UND football team looks different than the fall 2019 version in that it appears it'll have some pop in the running game.
For that, Weah gets a solid dose of the credit.