North Dakota's passing offense certainly was scary to watch on game film, and Sacramento State no doubt spent the bulk of the week preparing for the aerial assault. But it was the ground game that had Sac State flustered for much of Saturday's game at Hornet Stadium.
Two Hornets turnovers within North Dakota's 15-yard line didn't help, either, as Mitch Sutton ran for 163 yards and three touchdowns to lead North Dakota (3-1) to a 35-13 Big Sky Conference win over Sac State (2-2).
It was the Big Sky opener for both teams and the first Big Sky game ever for North Dakota, which last played in Sacramento in 1972 when it beat Cal Poly at Hughes Stadium in the Camellia Bowl.
North Dakota entered the game averaging 337 yards a game through the air, eighth best in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
Sac State held quarterback Markus Hendrickson, who threw for 434 yards against San Diego State last week, to 147 passing yards. He threw two touchdown strikes to Jameer Jackson (32 and 20 yards). But it was the offensive-line play from North Dakota and power running of Sutton that put the game away.
"This was a statement game," said Sutton, a senior from Plover, Wis. "We knew we can still do what we did last year, and that's pound the rock when we need to."
Sac State's Ezekiel Graham had eight carries for 116 yards in the first half, then became part of a running back committee. The team's ground game lost momentum, and Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck took the blame.
"Ezekiel had a good game, and I probably should have kept him in there," said Sperbeck, whose squad goes on the road the next two weeks to Idaho State and Southern Utah.
Sperbeck said his team's inability to convert in the red zone and the big offensive line of North Dakota were the keys to the game, especially in the second half as North Dakota chewed up the clock.
Sac State had a fumbled snap and an interception that negated long drives. North Dakota also blocked a field-goal attempt, its fourth of the season. North Dakota has a knack for blocking kicks, having led the FCS last season with 10.
Sac State had a season-high 492 yards of offense. North Dakota finished with 441, but 294 of that was on the ground.
"We knew they were balanced and they were big and physical up front," Sperbeck said. "You really saw that later in the game, and they got after us".
Sac State set up for Edgar Castaneda's 52-yard field-attempt with two seconds left in the half, but the kick was blocked. It was North Dakota's fourth blocked kick of the season.
Hornets quarterback Garrett Safron found DeAndre Carter for an 11-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It was the fourth consecutive game with a touchdown catch for the sophomore wide receiver.
Del Oro High School graduate Mason Magleby replaced Safron late in the game and directed a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Shane Harrison.
Magleby has battled back from a back injury after transferring from Nevada.
"It was good to see him get some time," Sperbeck said.