The score was similar to other scholarship drubbings that the Valparaiso football team has suffered in recent years.
The feeling from fourth-year coach Dale Carlson was completely different.
The Crusaders gave up a long touchdown on their first defensive play and then surrendered a 64-yard punt return moments later as North Dakota rolled to an easy season 69-10 win on Thursday night.
Despite the one-sided loss, Carlson spoke with optimism and encouragement.
“By no means am I happy about getting beat this way, but our guys never stopped fighting,” Carlson said. “I saw the look in their eyes late in the game and it was different than some of those games like Youngstown State. I liked the fight. This bodes well for some good things down the road.”
The Crusaders were underdogs the moment their chartered flight landed Wednesday afternoon.
North Dakota red-shirt freshman quarterback Ryan Bartles hit star receiver with a 75-yard strike to open up the floodgates. Bartles finished with 212 passing yards while Hardin had five catches for 163 yards. Hardin also opened the second half with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Valparaiso struggled moving the ball against North Dakota’s bigger defenders, but the Crusaders did have a bright spot when reserve quarterback Ben Lehman connected with Fred Gladney for a 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“We talked at the end of last year about how many big plays we left on the field,” Carlson said. “Ben made a good decision and then Fred went up and made the catch against good coverage. Those little victories are going to build as we go.”
Star sophomore back Jake Hutson led Valparaiso with 72 rushing yards while starting quarterback Eric Hoffman was just 6-of-20 for 41 yards. The Crusaders had several special teams miscues that frustrated Carlson throughout the evening.
“You’d like to not get beat in special teams,” Carlson said. “We had a goal not to turn the ball over. We did late in the game, but the defense responded and held them to a field goal. The whole game wasn’t a success, but we did have some successful moments.”
Perhaps the most successful moment for the Crusaders is that they escaped the game with no major injuries. Valparaiso has seen several key contributors go down in early season games against scholarship programs in recent years.
Valparaiso returns to the gridiron to face St. Joseph’s in Rensselaer next Saturday.