Baylee Hopps knew he was close to breaking off a big run. He'd been oh-so-close several times earlier in the game.

And when St. Ambrose needed a touchdown the most Saturday afternoon, the sophomore running back delivered.

Hopps had a 24-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes remaining to spur the Fighting Bees to a 27-24 season-opening win over Dakota State at Brady Street Stadium.

Hopps appeared to be down about eight yards into the run, but rolled over his tackler, never touching the ground, and got up and ran untouched into the end zone.

"Just keep playing until the whistle, that's what I've always done," Hopps said. "There were a few times before then where I thought I could get away with it and it paid off.

Hopps' run capped a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive for the Bees after Dakota State had taken a 24-20 lead on a touchdown pass from Jacob Giles to Mason Leighton.

"It was just a great team effort," Hopps said. "We just stayed composed at the end, stuck with the game plan and drove it down the field at the end."

The final drive said a lot about the potential for the Bees this season.

Despite graduating their top passer, rusher and receiver from last year's team, St. Ambrose ran 100 plays for 525 yards of offense, 302 on the ground. Hopps finished with 172.

"It's hard to say what I expected. I expected us to play better than a year ago but how much better was hard to say," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "I thought we were very physical today on both sides of the ball and maybe a year ago we weren't quite as physical.

"I think that's been an emphasis and I think you saw it today."

Jake Romani had an up-and-down first start at quarterback. He threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns to Chase Ferger but also had a pair of interceptions in the end zone that cost St. Ambrose an opportunity for points.

"Overall, a very good first start. I thought for the most part he made really good decisions, he didn't seem rattled out there at all," Magistrelli said. "We threw two picks in the red zone and those are things he'll learn from. There's also things where you second-guess yourself as a coach.

"We'll learn those things together but for his first college start, if this is the beginning, he's in pretty good shape."

While the offense still is working out the kinks, the Bees' defense looks to be in midseason form in its debut under new defensive coordinator Vince Fillipp.

Last year, the Trojans rolled up 519 yards in a 62-48 win over the Bees, with quarterback Jacob Giles throwing for seven touchdowns. Giles equaled that feat last week in a win over No. 17 Dakota Wesleyan, with his top target Austin Opdahl bringing in 17 catches for 333 yards and four touchdowns.

Saturday, that tandem had limited success as Opdahl caught four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Giles threw for 200 yards and three scores.

The defense held Dakota State without a third-down conversion in the first half and recorded seven 3-and-outs in the game.

"We're a young secondary ... but we're not afraid of anybody," sophomore cornerback Kobe Easley said. "This defense is something special if we can hold a team like that to just 24 points ... the defense is very impressive and I don't think we should be taken lightly."

After Hopps' touchdown, Dakota State still had 2:04 left to try and drive down the field. But the St. Ambrose defense stood tall with Chris Overton coming up with his only sack of the game and the secondary knocking down three passes.

With a tough upcoming schedule, including games against the last two national champions, this win goes a long way toward building the confidence of this year's team.

"I think today told us our team should not be taken lightly," Overton said. "Everybody has stepped up through spring ball, through camp and now this week ... when you have a team like this that has one goal in mind, (the possibilities) are endless."

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times