The defending Big Sky Conference champions had a hard time doing what they do best in Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
North Dakota managed to earn three field goals and trailed by a single score at halftime against No. 25 Utah at Rice Eccless Stadium in the opener for both teams. But Utah’s ability to run the ball and UND’s inability to muster any sort of ground game resulted in a 37-16 victory for the Utes.
The Fighting Hawks ripped off nine straight victories en route to their first Big Sky crown last season by gaining nearly 210 and allowing a Big Sky-best 91 rushing yards per game. In UND’s first chance to avenge last season’s heartbreaking 27-24 home loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs at home to Richmond, the Fighting Hawks saw the tables turned against their powerful Pac 12 hosts.
“One thing I ask our team to do is play hard for 60 minutes and I think our guys did that tonight,” North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “We can execute better.
“We always want to tackle better. … Then, offensively, we wanted to run the ball with more consistency, but we knew that would be a challenge coming into the game.”
The Utah defense smothered UND for the duration for the game, allowing just 51 yards on 28 North Dakota rushes, or 1.8 yards per carry. All-American running back John Santiago broke for a 15-yard run once, the only rush of more than 10 yards. Santiago, a junior who has rushed or more than 2,500 yards over the last two seasons, finished with 20 yards on 10 carries.
Utah frequently loaded the box and dared UND senior quarterback Keaton Studsrud to throw the ball. He struggled in the first three quarters, completing 7-of-19 passes for 65 yards and an interception. On North Dakota’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Studsrud completed all three of his passes for 76 yards, including a three-yard touchdown pass to Luke Fiedler for UND’s only touchdown. That scoring toss cut the lead to 27-16. Utah would score 10 more points to win going away.
“You got to be mentally sound when you’re going up against guys like that, being bigger and faster,” said Studsrud, who finished 13-of-28 for 175 yards, a touchdown and an interception. “You’ve got to out-execute them.”
“It was tough. They’ve got those guys up front that are (going to be) playing in the NFL on Sundays.”
Offensively, the Utes controlled the line of scrimmage as well. Zack Moss rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Quarterback Tyler Huntley, Moss’s prep teammate at Hallandale (Florida) High, added 70 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and Utah piled up 272 rushing yards at a 5.8 yards per carry clip.
In the debut of new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s up-tempo attack, Huntley also threw for 227 yards and a touchdown to beleaguered Oregon transfer Darren Carrington II. Taylor was Eastern Washington’s offensive coordinator in 2016. Carrington was dismissed from Oregon in July but caught 10 passes for 127 yards in his Utah debut. The Utes totaled 499 yards of total offense.
Jake Disterhaupt led UND with 14 tackles. Jade Lawrence added seven tackles and two of UND’s eight tackles for loss. Utah senior linebacker Sunia Tauteoli, an NFL prospect, led the Ute defensive effort with 10 tackles.
Idaho 28, Sacramento State 6 — In Moscow, a second straight season-opening slow start for the once and future Big Sky member Vandals gave the visitors hope. But in the end, Aaron Duckworth and Matt Linehan were too much for Sac State’s defense to handle for four quarters.
Sac State pitched a first-quarter shutout and took a 3-0 lead early in the second quarter. Idaho did not take a lead until Linehan capped an 81-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Sannon nine minutes into the second quarter.
Linehan, who finished 14-of-19 for 163 yards, threw his second touchdown, a 35-yard yard strike to Reuben Mwehla to give Idaho a 14-3 lead.
The Hornets cut the lead to 14-6 before halftime where it stood until the six-minute mark of the third quarter. DJ Henderson’s 1-yard run gave Idaho a cushion before Duckworth, who finished with 142 yards on 19 carries, sealed the final margin with an 18-yard touchdown.
Idaho, an original Big Sky member when the league was founded in 1963, struggled with Montana State in a 20-17 season-opening win before going on to nine victories and a bowl triumph. The Vandals left the Big Sky in 1996 but will return as a full-time FCS and BSC member in 2018.
Sac managed just 190 yards of total offense and eight first downs but held Idaho without a third down conversion until the fourth quarter. Dre Terrell and Mister Harriel each intercepted Linehan to keep the game close.
Idaho State 37, Western Oregon 6 — The Bengals got the Rob Phenicie era off to a winning start by drubbing their Division II opening opponent in Pocatello on Thursday.
Tanner Gueller threw for 289 yards and touchdowns to Austin Campbell, Michael Dean and Jake Johnson as ISU rolled up 431 yards of total offense. Ty Flanagan rushed 14 times for 100 yards and a touchdown to lead a revitalized ISU run game that piled up 289 yards on just 20 carries (14.4 yards per carry).
Western Oregon stud Paul Revis, who ripped Sac State in WOU’s season-opening win over the Hornets last season, caught 13 passes for 137 yards to pace the Great Northwest Athletic Conference visitors.