By SCOOTER PURSLEY
The Billings Gazette
DICKINSON, N.D. - For the first time in nine years, North Dakota was glad somebody dragged the cannon into Whitney Stadium for the annual Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl.
North Dakota scored early, and often, prompting a barrage of gunfire that signaled the end of an eight-year losing streak with a 53-29 victory. The loss by Montana was only its third in 12 games since the series began in 1994.
North Dakota coach Rod Oksendahl said his team was hearing how bad it was going to get beat.
"We used that to our advantage," Oksendahl said. "It was well chronicled all week. They were sick of it by the end of the week."
The loss ruined a record-setting night by Montana quarterback Gary Wagner of Havre. He was named his team's offensive MVP after completing 26 of 39 passes for 343 yards and a pair of scores. His completions, attempts and yards were records.
"This means nothing to me. If we would have got a win it would have meant more than winning this damn trophy," a dejected Wagner said.
North Dakota quarterbacks Tim Oksendahl and Mike Dawson carved up the Montana defense in the first half, completing 12 of 13 passes for 182 and three touchdowns. North Dakota scored on all but the last possession of the half to go up 39-7 at the break. The only missed pass was a Hail Mary as the half ended.
Although Montana tried rallying in the second half, North Dakota made enough plays to keep the Montanans at bay.
"It was Murphy's Law in the first half and they took advantage of our mistakes," Montana coach Mark Sulser said. "It was too big for us to come back. That's the way it is."
Sulser, whose offense at Billings Senior is based on the pass, saw his team have some success, but most of it was too late in the game.
"When you throw the ball a lot of things have to come together," Sulser added.
The breakdown began up front as North Dakota recorded 10 sacks. Defensive ends Dusty Vliem and Justin Gallagher had four sacks apiece.
"The things just weren't there," Sulser said.
They were for North Dakota, which scored more points in the first half than it had in the previous six games combined. Its 53 points eclipsed its old high-water mark of 28 points set in 1994.
The game also was the highest-scoring game in series history.
North Dakota lit the fuse on the cannon early by taking the opening kickoff and putting together an 11-play, 67-yard drive to go up 7-0 when Chris Leier hauled in a 30-yard scoring pass from Oksendahl.
Montana responded with a 13-play drive. But it came up empty on fourth down and North Dakota took over on its 39 and went straight down to score again. This time, Jeff Tescher hauled in a 30-yard TD pass.
"Once we got up 14-0, it gave our kids confidence," Rod Oksendahl said. "Seven-zero is one thing, but getting up two scores is another."
After Montana went three and out, North Dakota needed just three plays to go up 21-0 on a Jon Samuelson four-yard run. That was followed by a 45-yard field goal by Brandon Hellevang, an 18-yard pass from Oksendahl to Ryan Chappell and a Chance Kraft 1-yard run.
Even when things went bad for North Dakota in the first half, they turned good. After Kraft's score, a bad snap led to a desperation pass from Hellevang to Jordan Engelhardt for two points.
Montana got on the board on a 56-yard pass from Wagner to Tyler Palmer right before the half ended.
Montana regrouped in the second half, but it managed to carve only seven points off the lead on a 1-yard run by Fort Benton's Brandon Utterback.
Montana started the fourth quarter down, but not out.
Sean Hanrahan of Bozeman closed the gap to 39-21 with 10:32 left in the game on a 2-yard run. North Dakota helped keep the nine-play, 80-yard drive alive with three offside calls.
D.J. Bergen of Billings West recovered an onside kick that temporarily gave Montana even more optimism, but that faded quickly when, on second down, Wagner was drilled by Gallagher and fumbled. Vliem picked up the ball and raced 27 yards for a score.
The teams exchanged scores down the stretch with Marc Mariani of Havre scoring on a 23-yard pass for Montana.
Despite the results, Sulser said he still thinks he had the right gameplan.
"Maybe in this all-star game, maybe we were more suited with the guys we had to a two-back offense," Sulser said. "But we felt like we had the personnel to do it and I still think we have personnel to do it."
Montana 0 7 7 15 - 29
North Dakota 14 25 0 14 - 53
North Dakota: Chris Leier 30 pass from Tim Oksendahl (Brandon Hellevang kick), 9:13.
North Dakota: Jeff Tescher 31 pass from Oksendahl (Hellevang kick), 1:13
North Dakota: Jon Samuelson 4 run (Hellevang kick), 13:37.
North Dakota: Hellevang 45 field goal, 8:36.
North Dakota: Ryan Chappell 18 pass from Oksendahl (Hellevang kick), 6:07.
North Dakota: Chance Kraft 1 run (Jordan Engelhardt pass from Hellevang), 3:03.
Montana: Tyler Palmer 56 pass from Gary Wagner (Shann Scott kick), 1:30
Montana: Brandon Utterback 1 run (Scott kick), 1:21.
Montana: Sean Hanrahan 2 run (Scott kick), 10:32.
North Dakota: Dusty Vliem 27 fumble recovery (Hellevang kick), 9:45.
Montana: Marc Mariani 23 pass from Wagner (Utterback run), 8:25.
North Dakota: Samuelson 1 run (Hellevang kick), 4:20.
Montana North Dakota
First downs 22 20
Rushes-yards 38-27 52-163
Yards passing 343 182
Passing 26-40-0 12-17-1
Total yards 370 345
Fumbles-lost 4-2 3-0
Punts-average 1-42.0 5-15.0
Penalties-yards 3-34 8-42
Rushing: Montana Brandon Utterback 6-30. Gary Wagner 21-1. Sean Hanrahan 3-7. Derek Maciel 1-2. Shann Schillinger 5-(minus 1). Jeff Brokaw 1-(minus 3). Shawn Lebsock 1-(minus 7). North Dakota Chance Kraft 17-72. Jon Samuelson 13-53. Joel Kelly 8-19. Matt Kittelson 3-11. Mike Dawson 3-12. Ryan Chappell 3-1. Tim Oksendahl 5-(minus 5).
Passing: Montana Wagner 26-39-0, 343 yards; Schillinger 0-1-0, 0 yards. North Dakota Oksendahl 9-11-0, 149 yards; Dawson 3-6-1, 33 yards.
Receiving: Montana Derek Green 7-74. Maciel 8-68. Schillinger 3-68. Tyler Palmer 2-94. Brokaw 2-9. Mark Mariani 2-30. Utterbeck 2-0. North Dakota Chappell 5-69. Nick Houkam 3-22. Chris Leier 1-30. Jeff Tescher 1-31. Andy Murphy 1-11. Jordan Engelhardt 1-9.