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Utah football notes: North Dakota is Utes' sixth Big Sky opponent since joining Pac-12

SALT LAKE CITY — For the sixth time in seven seasons as a member of the Pac-12, 25th-ranked Utah will host a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.

North Dakota, the reigning Big Sky Conference champs, take on the Utes Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Fighting Hawks join a list of visitors from the league that includes Montana State (2011), Northern Colorado (2012), Weber State (2013), Idaho State (2014) and Southern Utah (2016).

The Utes are 5-0 in the games played, thus far, outscoring their Big Sky foes by a margin of 218-31.

Despite all that and a 38-0 record against teams currently in the Big Sky, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes aren’t taking anything for granted. North Dakota went 9-3 last season, including an 8-0 mark in conference play.

"Tough football team. They are physical. They won a bunch of games last season. They have just about everybody back,” Whittingham said at his weekly press conference. "They are very well coached. They are a quality football team and by all means, all of our focus is on them and nobody else.”

TOP TACKLER: Junior safety Chase Hansen has been busy working his way into playing shape after missing a majority of preseason practices because of an unspecified injury. Hansen led the Utes with 90 tackles last year. Defending his title, though, isn’t what motivates him. He noted that he just wants to be a more effective player overall than last season and improving his tackling is just part of that.

“I know I could be much better because I missed a lot, too,” Hansen said of making stops.

TESTING GROUNDS: Thursday’s Utah-North Dakota matchup will be part of the Pac-12’s pilot initiative to shorten football games. It’s being conducted at all non-conference contests that are broadcast by the Pac-12 Networks.

“We are committed to exploring new ways to provide our fans with the most enjoyable and engaging entertainment experience,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a released announcement. “The Pac-12 Networks’ unique ownership model provides the conference the flexibility to test new methods in its efforts to produce a better product for Pac-12 fans. We look forward to evaluating the results of this pilot program and discussing with our member universities as a next step following this year’s football season.”

Utah’s season opener will feature reduced break times between quarters. The Pac-12 Networks also plans to adjust commercial formats as well. Other broadcasts may include a shorter halftime in hopes of ultimately shortening games by 10 minutes.