GRAND FORKS, N.D. – When North Dakota scored a touchdown on its first second-half possession Saturday to cut into Sacramento State's 17-point halftime lead, the Hornets could have slipped into an "oh no, here we go again" mindset.
That's because Sac State squandered an identical advantage a week earlier for a crushing one-point loss to Northern Arizona. The reasons were threefold why they didn't collapse again and instead took a commanding 31-7 Big Sky Conference win over North Dakota.
One reason was a pre-emptive halftime message from coach Marshall Sperbeck. "I didn't mention losing the 17-point lead; I just said that we need to play for the entire 60 minutes," Sperbeck said. "I'm quite sure they knew what I was talking about."
A second reason was the running of senior Brandon Kellermann, who gained 119 yards on 27 carries in the ball-control attack, most of them in the second half after starter Jordan Robinson went down with an injury.
"This was Brandon's first 100-yard rushing game, and I'm not just counting college, but high school, too," Sperbeck said. "He was more of a linebacker than a running back in high school. He was our fifth-string running back, but in the second half he was the only one left because the other four are hurt."
The third reason Sac State prevailed was the play of quarterback Garrett Safron, who ran for two short-yardage touchdowns and completed 19 of 24 passes for 202 yards, including a 26-yard scoring strike to Cole Hikutini in the third quarter to counter UND's one score.
"We learned from the loss last week," Safron said. "We knew we just had to execute and keep doing what we were doing because we were playing well. Our third-down success (8 of 16) also was big."
While the Hornets (4-4, 3-1) didn't commit a turnover, their defense created four. Leading the defense was linebacker Todd Davis, who had a team-high eight tackles, including two of the Hornets' five quarterback sacks. He also intercepted a pass to end a North Dakota (1-3, 2-5) drive that reached Sacramento's 10.
"Our defensive line was getting home to the quarterback all game," Davis said. "Defensive-wise, it maybe was our best game of the season. Coach made it a priority at halftime to definitely not give up our big lead again."
"We finally started getting going on offense to start the second half, but then we had a couple of boneheaded mistakes, and we were right back where we were the last couple of weeks," UND coach Chris Mussman said.
Safron's 5-yard run produced the only touchdown of the first quarter. Jesse's Aguilar's 41-yard field goal and Kellermann's 2-yard run upped the lead to 17-0 at halftime. After UND pulled within 17-7 midway through the third quarter, Safron answered with the strike to Hikutini and a 1-yard quarterback sneak.