UND rediscovers its ground game in Big Sky opener

GRAND FORKS - The University of North Dakota football team's run game went missing in the two games leading up to Saturday's matchup with UC Davis at the Alerus Center, especially for the four quarters last weekend at rival North Dakota State.

North Dakota true freshman running back John Santiago sprints through a hole in the defense for a touchdown against UC Davis on Saturday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS – The University of North Dakota football team’s run game went missing in the two games leading up to Saturday’s matchup with UC Davis at the Alerus Center, especially for the four quarters last weekend at rival North Dakota State.
North Dakota rediscovered the ground attack just in time for the start of Big Sky Conference play.
UND ran 40 times for 240 yards, led by true freshman John Santiago’s 152 yards and two touchdowns, to beat UC Davis 31-24 in front of 8,450 fans.
“A win in the Big Sky is always a good feeling,” UND safety Cole Reyes said. “We moved past (the NDSU game) and got a really big win today. This is Big Sky play, and it’s a whole different atmosphere.”
Despite leading by as many as 18 points in the third quarter, UND (3-1 overall) needed a strong final drive from its offense to hold off UC Davis, which dropped to 0-1 and 0-4.
On fourth-and-11 from the UND 31, the Aggies lined up for a field goal trailing 31-17 with less than seven minutes to go.
But thanks to an offsides call on UND’s Deion Harris on the made field-goal attempt, the Aggies decided to go for it on fourth-and-6. Davis picked up the first down, and two plays later quarterback Ben Scott hit wide receiver Alex Cannon on a 2-yard touchdown pass to make it 31-24 with 6:12 remaining.
That’s when UND went on the game-winning march. The first big play came on second-and-7 early in the series when Keaton Studsrud, who finished with just 58 passing yards, hit Josh Seibel for a 10-yard gain and a first down.
Two plays later, Santiago rushed for 19 yards. Two plays after that, Studsrud scampered for 22 more.
UND’s drive reached the 4, but UND kneeled out the clock instead of punching in another score.
“We had a chance to get the ball back and they ran five minutes off,” UC Davis coach Ron Gould said. “That’s something that can’t happen. We have to get the ball back.”
UND’s run defense was once again stout, allowing just 67 yards on 32 Davis rushes. UND linebacker Will Ratelle keyed the defensive effort, making a career-high 15 tackles, including 12 solo stops. He had one sack and four tackles for loss.
Reyes and linebacker Taj Rich also added eight tackles each.
UND didn’t lock up the game until the final moments but a key play from the goal-line defense and one from special teams came in the second quarter and played a huge part in UND’s win.
Leading 14-7, UND allowed a 36-yard pass play on a flea-flicker from Scott to Cannon. The over-the-shoulder catch set up Davis first-and-goal at the 2.
Big stops from Reyes and Ratelle forced a 19-yard field goal by Brady Stuart to trim UND’s lead to 14-10.
“I cannot play for them,” Gould said. “We call a play down on the goal line … and as fat as I am … I would be able to make the play. (UND) lined up exactly as we thought they were going to line up. They did everything we thought they were going to do, and we didn’t put the ball in the end zone. We had to settle for three. I was disappointed.”
UND’s next big play came on special teams. UC Davis’ Chris Martin broke free on a punt return and was nearing UND’s red zone. But UND wide receiver Miguel Cerriteno caught up to Martin and stripped the ball from behind. UND offensive lineman Brandon Anderson hopped on the loose ball and swung momentum back to North Dakota.
“We teach our guys on special teams and defense that at the end of every play is a turnover,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. “He stuck with it. Miguel would have liked to have started that play better, but he stuck with it. That really changed the game.”
UCD 7 3 7 7–24
UND 14 7 10 0–31
UND–Santiago 2 run (Taubenheim kick)
UND–Adler 4 pass from Studsrud (Taubenheim kick)
UCD–Martin 27 pass from Scott (Stuart kick)
UCD–Stuart 19 FG
UND–Stanley 3 pass from Studsrud (Taubenheim kick)
UND–Santiago 6 run (Taubenheim kick)
UCD–Martin 20 pass from Scott (Stuart kick)
UND–Taubenheim 46 FG
UCD–Cannon 2 pass from Scott (Stuart kick)
First downs 15 17
Rushes-yards 32-67 40-240
Passing 216 58
Comp-Att-Int 18-26-1 8-19-1
Punts-Avg. 4-36.5 4-50.2
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-Yards 2-19 2-10
Time of possession 31:46 28:14
RUSHING: UCD, Luuga 18-44, Kelley 5-14, Layton 4-8, Scott 4-3. UND, Santiago 18-152, Studsrud 11-59, Smith 8-33.
PASSING: UCD, Scott 14-20-1 174 yards, Spencer 4-6-0 42. UND, Studsrud 8-19-1 58.
RECEIVING: UCD, Cannon 6-74, Vargas 4-36, Martin 2-47, Baljeu 2-26. UND, Seibel 2-22, Cerriteno 2-13, Stanley 2-9, Walker 1-10.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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