It wasn't pretty. Despite being outgained by 52 yards, committing more than 102 yards in penalties and having a nonexistent passing game, the University of North Dakota football team found a way when it absolutely had to.
The Fighting Hawks gave their foe every chance to come back and earn a comeback victory. From key penalties and botching an onside kick recovery, UND almost gave away its road win.
But, its defense made big play after big play and the offense earned tough yards in extremely tough situations.
Facing a tough Big Sky opponent in Montana State on the road, UND walked away with a 17-15 victory Saturday. What was particularly impressive by the Fighting Hawks was their ability to win despite getting little production from star running back John Santiago.
The standout sophomore was held to 57 yards on 19 runs and no scores. With the All-Big Sky performer having troubles finding openings in the Bobcat defense, head coach Bubba Schweigert called the number of Brady Oliveira. The physical sophomore gained 171 yards while finding the end zone twice on 22 carries.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Hawk air attack remained stagnant as signal caller Keaton Studsrud threw for 121 yards.
The difference in the game was three takeaways by the University of North Dakota defense in the form of three interceptions.
All-in-all, it was a great win for the Fighting Hawks. Don't get me wrong, Montana State isn't a great football team.
The Bobcats have a new staff and very young squad. Anytime, however, you can walk away with a triumph in the Big Sky Conference, it's a great win.
It's back home for the UND football team now. The Fighting Hawks have a huge opportunity in front of themselves. A chance to get off to a 2-0 start in conference play is something special for the Hawks.
Cal Poly rides into Saturday for a huge showdown. The Mustangs have the best offense UND has faced this season. Behind the arm and legs of dual-threat quarterback Dano Graves, Cal Poly has jumped out to a 3-1 start on the year.
The Big Sky team dropped an overtime loss at the hands of Nevada to open up the season. It didn't take long for the Mustangs to bounce back as the squad rattled off three straight wins over San Diego, South Dakota State and Montana.
Averaging 36 points and 490 yards per game, Cal Poly features one of the most high-powered attacks in the FCS. Like UND, their opponent’s success starts on the ground.
The Mustangs have gained 1,518 yards and scored 13 touchdowns in just four games. Graves has gained 328 yards and found pay dirt four times with his feet while throwing for 510 yards and six touchdowns. Joe Protheroe is another player for the Hawks to key on.
The leading rusher for Cal Poly has dashed for 557 yards and five scores while averaging nearly 140 yards per game.
Defensively, the team is susceptible to the pass, giving up 250 yards per game. Opponents average nearly 110 yards on the ground against the Mustangs.
For UND, the team's offense begins and ends with its running game. No matter if it's Santiago and Oliveira, the Hawks need to get something going on the ground. One thing I really like about the green and white in the past several weeks are the strides being made by the squad's offensive line unit.
It's going to be a tough game against one of the up-and-coming squads in the Big Sky Conference. The good news for the Hawks is that they are back at home. It will be important for North Dakota to find success early and often to keep its fans in the game. The defense will have to come up with key stops against Cal Poly.
Despite my better judgement, I am calling for a UND win.
The Mustangs are a very impressive team especially on offense. There is just something about the confidence North Dakota has shown down the stretch in its last two games. I see the Hawks winning 27-24 and improving to 3-2 on the 2016 campaign.