MILES CITY — Cole Moller had a feeling Saturday night would be a big night for Justin Pierson at Denton Field.
The Billings Central quarterback was dead on.
Pierson, a 6-foot, 190-pound powerhouse from Bozeman, rushed for 72 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 46 yards to help Montana overpower North Dakota 34-13 in the 18th annual Badlands Bowl.
“Pierson is amazing,” a smiling Moller said after the game.
“That guy is so good. We saw it all week in practice. I knew at some point he was going to take the game over.”
Pierson’s running, Moller’s precision passing and relentless defensive pressure helped Montana dominate the game after overcoming an early 10-0 deficit.
Pierson scored on touchdown runs of 4 and 5 yards, while Moller connected with Great Falls High’s Jake Olson on a 31-yard TD pass and scored on an 8-yard run.
Montana’s other scoring came on field goals of 32 and 25 yards by Butte High’s Matt Berg.
“We had to work out some kinks at the beginning of the game and North Dakota got a couple of big plays on us,” Pierson said. “But after that we meshed together as a team and played a solid team game.”
“I definitely don’t feel like I took the game over,” Pierson added with a smile after being told of Moller’s comment. “This was a team win. We ran the ball well, we passed the ball well and our defense was great.”
Indeed it was. The Montana defense chased and hit North Dakota quarterbacks Carson Wentz (Bismarck Century) and Griffin Neal (Fargo South) all night, recording six sacks and two interceptions.
Montana also held North Dakota to just 40 yards rushing on 31 attempts.
“Their front seven was the difference,” said North Dakota coach Troy Mattern, of Fargo South. “They gave us fits all night. We knew they were fast and we had a lot of things designed to get rid of the ball quick, but we just couldn’t do it quick enough for most of the night.”
Wentz completed 15 of 23 passes for 230 yards, one interception and one touchdown — a 26-yarder to Fargo South’s Andrew Okland just 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
But that would be North Dakota’s only TD of the night. Their second drive stalled at the Montana six, forcing North Dakota to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Fargo Shanley’s Dan Jordan. From there, it was all Montana.
Moller completed 18 of 23 passes for 210 yards, one TD and one interception. Olson was Montana’s leading receiver with 81 yards on five catches.
“I think the key to the win was our kids not panicking when we got down early,” said Montana coach Dan Stanton, of Miles City. “Once we got going, we kept them honest with balancing the run and the pass.
“And our defense was great. North Dakota had a lot of talent on that offense, but we kept coming after them.”
Connor Lebsock of Billings Skyview had both of Montana’s interceptions, the second coming at the goal line on a flea-flicker play from the Montana 21.
“When the receiver took off, I figured it was a trick play so I just bailed back and tried to keep him in front of me,” Lebsock said. “The ball was underthrown, so I was able to get in there and get it.
“It was a fun night. We knew we had a fast defense, but to only give up three points after the first quarter is even better than we could have expected. It was just a pleasure to play with this team. These guys really got after it on both sides of the ball.”
Okland caught seven passes for 166 yards for North Dakota.
Pierson and Helena High linebacker Sean Blomquist were named Montana’s offensive and defensive MVPs. Wentz and West Fargo defensive back Jon Pistorius were named North Dakota’s MVPs.
With the win, Montana avenged last year’s 41-38 North Dakota victory and now leads the all-time series 13-5. Montana is 8-2 in games played in Miles City.
North Dakota has not won back-to-back games in the series.