By Austin Cannon
After three quarters, it didn’t look like the Bulldogs had any chance of coming back against North Dakota on Saturday at the Alerus Center. After an improbable fourth quarter, they were almost able to pull off the comeback.
Trailing 21-3 after three quarters, the Bulldogs scored 15 points in the fourth, but they couldn’t recover either of its two onside kicks with fewer than four minutes to play. The Bulldogs lost 21-18, falling to 1-1 on the season.
“We were there,” head coach Rick Fox said. “We had our opportunities but just came up short.”
North Dakota scored all its points in the first half. Quarterback Keaton Studsrud had a long touchdown pass and took advantage of good field position, throwing for 213 yards and two more touchdowns in the first half. UND went into halftime up 21-0, and Drake seemingly had no business mounting any sort of a comeback.
With the offense unable to do much of anything for most of the game, the Bulldog defense shouldered the burden by keeping UND off the scoreboard.
“Our defense hung in there in really difficult situations,” Fox said.
The defense even opened the scoring in the final period. Linebacker John Hugunin sacked Studsrud in his own end zone with 13:13 to play. The safety lessened Drake’s deficit to 21-5.
After both teams punted twice, Drake got the ball back with 5:41 to go at its own 32. For the first time since its opening drive, the offense was able to move the ball down the field effectively. A 28-yard pass from Andy Rice to Keegan Gallery put the ball at the UND 1, and Conley Wilkins ran it in for six. With a successful two-point conversion, Drake was within 21-11 with 3:17 left.
After recovering the onside kick, UND got a first down before Studsrud fumbled the snap at the Drake 35. Drake’s Al Wegener recovered, and nine plays later, Rice found tight end Eric Saubert over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds remaining. Drake only trailed by three.
But the improbable comeback stopped there. Josh Seibel corralled Cam Bohnert’s onside kick, and UND escaped with its second victory of the season.
Studsrud’s 59-yard bootleg pass over the middle to Luke Stanley gave UND the early lead on its opening drive. Stanley caught the ball and outran a pair of Drake defenders to the end zone.
“They just got a big play on us,” Fox said.
Drake was unable to get out of its own end of the field for much of the first half. As a result, UND started its two other scoring drives at the Drake 47 and the UND 46.
For the majority of the first half, the Drake offense was the definition of “out-of-sync.” The Bulldogs’ opening drive got as far as the UND 18, but three straight negative plays moved the ball back nine yards. Josh Lee missed from 44 yards out.
After that, Drake went three-and-out five times before earning a first down against the stout UND defense. Nothing was working. Drake only gained 103 yards, was 0-for-3 on third down and only had the ball for a little more than 10 minutes in the first half.
For the game, the Bulldogs were held to only 275 yards, a stark contrast to their 496 yards last week against William Jewell.
“We kind of got out of rhythm, and when that happens offensively, you struggle to get back to it,” Fox said. “When you’re going three-and-outs you can’t really get anything developed.”
“We had a great first drive, I thought,” quarterback Andy Rice said. “After that, we kind of sputtered.”
It could’ve been worse. Already up 7-0 in the first, UND had first-and-goal inside the Drake 1. John Santiago took the handoff but Hugunin knocked the ball loose. Santiago couldn’t regain control and the ball sailed into the end zone, covered up by Drake’s John Bloss.
Besides forcing the two key turnovers, the Drake front seven clamped down on a UND offense that ran for 267 yards against Wyoming. Often facing a crowded line of scrimmage, UND managed only 25 yards rushing Saturday. Santiago put the ball on the ground three times and was a nonfactor after his 148-yard dismantling of Wyoming.
“The only reason he had that big of a game is because their defense didn’t fit like they were supposed to,” linebacker Taylor Coleman said. “We just preached during the game to do our jobs and we fit it like we were supposed to and didn’t give him those big creases to run through.”
But a loss is still a loss, and Drake only has next Saturday’s visit to South Dakota before it opens Pioneer Football League play against Stetson on Sept. 26.
“If we just come out of this and say, ‘Hey, we were happy to be close,’ but that’s it, then it was a wasted loss,” Fox said. “My number one hope is that we grew in that — and we saw that in the second half — and we move forward from here and build on that.”