Montana turned the ball over on its first three possessions, all in the opening five minutes of the game, and North Dakota took full advantage on Saturday afternoon at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.
The Fighting Hawks turned those three giveaways into a quick 21-0 lead, used another Grizzly miscue in the second quarter to build a 34-0 advantage at the half and went on to a 41-14 victory in what gets counted as a Big Sky Conference game for Montana (4-3, 2-2 BSC).
It was the second consecutive loss for the Grizzlies, the second in a row that can largely be attributed to turnovers. Montana fell at home last week to Portland State, 22-20, on a day when it fumbled the ball four times.
“When you turn it over three times in the first quarter, we’re not good enough to overcome that or even be close at this point. We’re not built to get out of that unless everything goes right, and certainly that wasn’t the case,” said coach Bobby Hauck.
On the third offensive play of the game, Dalton Sneed was intercepted by Deion Harris at the Montana 45, and a 35-yard return set North Dakota up with a first-and-goal. One play later it was 7-0.
Montana fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which turned into a short 42-yard scoring drive for the Fighting Hawks. That made it 14-0 less than four minutes into the game.
With Colin Bingham set up in the backfield and taking the handoff on a short-yardage play, he fumbled. North Dakota took the gift and marched 98 yards in nine plays to make it 21-0.
“We’re a really average football team,” said Hauck. “We’ve been good enough to win four and two of those (losses) we’ve been maybe one play away (from winning), but I don’t think there is any sugarcoating the fact we’re pretty dang average.
“We have liabilities and we have holes. There is no getting around that this season. It’s not good enough to go out and kick it around like we did. We can’t overcome that.”
Sneed hit Samori Toure for a 22-yard touchdown, only to see it waved off for an ineligible player downfield. Two plays later Tim Semenza missed his first field goal of the season, from 45 yards out, after opening 10 for 10.
After Montana turned the ball over on downs later in the second quarter, North Dakota needed just one play to go 55 yards when Nate Ketteringham hit Izzy Adeoti for 55 yards, one of a number of long pass connections for the Fighting Hawks, who gained 210 yards through the air in the first half.
“We’re making them hot down the field,” Hauck said at halftime. “We’re there. They make a play on the ball or we make a play on the ball. We’ve got to make a play on the ball. It’s a simple fact.
“They’re not marching up and down the field. They’re hitting us with the deep ball.”
North Dakota made it 34-0 at the half following Montana’s fourth turnover. Sneed hit Toure in the flat and the ball was stripped, a standup forced fumble, and returned to the 10. It led to another one-play scoring drive.
“Offensively and defensively they did what we thought they’d try to do,” said Hauck. “They played well, and they deserve some credit for that, but it was more about us. We’ve got to make plays and take care of the ball. We’ve got to do better.”
It would be the fourth quarter, after it was 41-0, before Montana would finally get on the scoreboard.
But there would only be so many possessions as North Dakota rushed for 178 of its 282 yards on the ground in the second half to keep the clock moving.
“I thought our guys played to the finish, but, again, we can’t be in that kind of hole and expect to win the game,” said Hauck.
The Fighting Hawks would finish with 536 yards of offense and have a 17-minute advantage in time of possession. They had the ball for more than 22 minutes in the second half, the Grizzlies less than eight.
For good or for bad, Montana reaches its off week and won’t play again until hosting UC Davis on Saturday, Oct. 27, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“As young as our team is, for them to have to sit and live with this one next week will be good. I think it can be productive for us to have to sit and marinate on this one,” said Hauck. “And we’ll get back out on the practice field and try to improve.”