UND tops Sacramento State for first Big Sky win
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The shootout never materialized, like many expected.
Instead, a maligned UND defense -- one that was torched in back-to-back weeks -- had its breakout game of the season. Not to be outdone, UND's run game, missing for the last two weeks, was front and center as well.
And it couldn't have come at a better time as UND beat Sacramento State 35-13 on Saturday night before 10,774 fans at Hornet Stadium.
It was a historic win as it was UND's first official game as a Big Sky Conference member. And it capped a week of intensity at the Memorial Stadium offices.
"I was wound pretty tight today and this whole weekend," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "This is a first. You don't get these opportunities very often so you have to take advantage of them. This is our first win in the Big Sky by this football program. And it came on the road. It's a huge, huge win."
After wandering through a difficult five-year transition to Division I football, UND wanted nothing more than to make a good first impression in its new home.
UND's offense wasn't as prolific through the air as it had been the last two weeks; still it was plenty effective -- especially on the ground. The Green and White -- led by Mitch Sutton's 162 yards -- rushed for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
And UND's defense, although allowing 492 yards, time and time came up with big stops.
"There will be times when people move the ball on us because there are good schemes in this league; there are good teams in this league," said UND defensive lineman Ross Brenneman. "But we never gave up. We played our hearts out."
Twice UND stopped Sac State on fourth-down situations and Brenneman fell on a Hornets' fumble at the UND 6 late in the second quarter to preserve UND's 14-7 lead.
In the second half, UND's running game dominated. Sutton bulled his way for big gainers as he scored three of UND's five touchdowns. And Jameer Jackson, with two receiving TDs, came up with a highlight-reel catch on a 20-yard strike from Marcus Hendrickson that gave UND a 28-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Sac State concentrated on slowing down UND's passing game led by Marcus Hendrickson, who came into the game as the top-rated passer in the FCS. He threw for 147 yards but it became clear as the game wore on that UND's run game was wearing down Sac State.
Sutton had something to prove; that UND can still move the ball on the ground.
"It was a statement," Sutton said. "We can still do what we did last year; and that's pound the rock when we need to."
Sutton's third touchdown on a 1-yard run late in the game capped a nine-minute drive.
"You could tell in the other team's eyes that the game was over," said Sutton, who had his first three TD game of his career.
Sutton had to be the workhorse as Jake Miller went down with a shoulder injury. His status was not known after the game.
UND scored on its first possession, as Hendrickson drilled a 32-yard pass to Jackson with 11:45 left in first quarter. It was almost too easy, as UND drove 81 yards on seven plays. And the Green and White did anything it wanted on the drive; Miller found gaping holes and Hendrickson had time to find Jackson.
But UND then had five straight three-and-out possessions. And an illegal formation penalty on a UND punt resulted in 20 more yards of field position for Sac State, and the Hornets capitalized -- driving 68 yards on four plays to tie the game at 7-7 on DeAndre Carter's 11-yard pass from Garrett Safron with 6:24 left in the opening quarter.
However, that was it for Sac State (2-2, 0-1). UND took a 14-7 lead at the half on Sutton's 5-yard run with 5:20 left in the second quarter. The score was set up by UND's defense, which stopped Sac State at the UND 36 when Will Lewis broke up a Saffron fourth-down pass intended for Carter.
Hendrickson then hit R.J. McGill on back-to-back passes for 18 yards before Sutton busted on for 22 yards for a first-and-goal at the Sac State 5.
Sutton found room behind the left side of UND's line and scored on the next play for the 14-7 advantage.
The defensive stop seemed to further energize UND's defense, which had allowed more than 500 yards in its last two games.
"After our last two games, we had a wakeup call on how we had to play," UND safety Erik Mersereau said. "It was pretty intense this week in practice."
Sac State, which owns a win over Colorado of the PAC 12 this season, had impressive offensive numbers but couldn't come up with the big play against UND's defense. Sac State had 181 yards in the second half, but 75 came on Sac State's final score -- a Shane Harrison 10-yard pass from backup quarterback Mason Magleby in the final minute.
Sutton scored on another 5-yard run in the third quarter for a 21-7 lead. And he bulled his way over from the Sac State 1 with 3:09 left for a 35-7 lead before Sac State got its late score.
UND's ability to run didn't surprise Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck.
"We knew they'd be balanced," Sperbeck said. "They're big and physical up front. Later in the game, you really saw that. They got after us."