Senior quarterback Brent Goska (Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.) threw a trio of fourth-quarter touchdowns in his final collegiate game to rally No. 22 North Dakota past No. 24 South Dakota 38-37 and secure a share of the Great West Conference regular season title Saturday at the Alerus Center. Goska also got some help throughout from his senior classmates, who were lauded before kickoff in a pre-game ceremony.
That group of 14 capped their Fighting Sioux careers with a four-game winning streak and an 8-3 record, reversing their fortunes from the 2010 campaign (3-8).
Trailing 37-17 entering the final stanza, Goska went 15-for-20 for 145 yards in those closing 15 minutes to bring UND its first Division I conference title since transitioning to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2008.
His final scoring toss came from 15 yards out as classmate Chris Anderson (Duluth, Minn.) stretched out far enough in the back of the end zone to get one foot down for the game-winning touchdown with just over four minutes to play. Anderson finished with two catches for 19 yards, while redshirt freshman Tyhre Ivery (Garland, Texas) had a career-high eight catches for 48 yards and his first two career touchdowns.
Sophomore R.J. McGill (Phoenix, Ariz.) also had a big game, catching a career-high seven passes for 89 yards. Goska finished 24-for-36 for 216 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.
The Fighting Sioux have now won 12 straight over the Coyotes (6-5, 2-2 GWC) in Grand Forks and 14 out of the last 16 overall as the teams played for the final time as conference rivals.
"Our guys continue to find ways to win and never quit believing," UND head coach Chris Mussman said. "What a way for us to send our 14 seniors out. That was incredible."
In a game of furious scoring runs by both teams, the Sioux looked to be buried after South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren led his team to four second-quarter scores and a 34-17 lead at halftime. But, as has been the case during UND's season-closing winning streak, the home team once again used a little fourth-quarter magic to finish the campaign with a dramatic triumph.
UND has won its last four games by a total of 12 points and rallied for a game-winning score in each of those contests.
Warren did fumble twice in the early going, which allowed UND to build a 17-7 advantage, but the fleet-footed quarterback ran for two scores and passed for two others in a 27-point second quarter for USD. The only missing point from their four-touchdown onslaught proved pivotal as after the Coyotes' third touchdown, senior Justin Belotti (Kenosha, Wis.) batted
down the point-after attempt, which was the 10th block of the season for the UND special teams.
The game started fast for Warren and company as he marched the Coyotes down on the opening drive, capping it with a 3-yard touchdown run to put the visitors ahead early 7-0. UND answered with a 44-yard field goal by Zeb Miller (Ankeny, Iowa).
On the Coyotes' next series, Warren was stripped by senior Dan Hendrickson (Minot, N.D.) and classmate Kenny Watkins (Plano, Texas) was there to pick up the loose ball and take it in from 22 yards out for UND's first lead of the game. Hendrickson finished with a career-high 10 solo tackles in the contest.
Junior Ross Brenneman (Omaha, Neb.) sacked Warren on a 3rd-and-2 on the next possession, forcing another fumble that was pounced on by Belotti for his fourth fumble recovery of the season. Eight plays later Goska found Ivery from 10 yards out for the combo's first scoring connection of the game, giving UND a 10-point edge.
USD had a quick answer, however, as a 10-yard scoring strike from Warren pulled the visitors to within 17-14 five minutes into the second quarter. Then, after a pair of stalled drives by the UND offense, the Coyotes used two big punt returns by Jeremy Blount to set up two more touchdowns and give USD a 27-17 lead.
Blount and company were not done scoring in the opening 30 minutes as this time the wide receiver capped USD's 34-point first half outburst with a 15-yard touchdown reception with just over a minute to play.
The Sioux could net nothing on their initial possession of the second half and the Coyotes used just over seven minutes off the clock on theirs, settling for a 44-yard field goal by Kevin Robb to make it a 37-17 contest. But, that would be the only points of the half for USD, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic comebacks in Fighting Sioux history.
Tight end Seth Nichols (McVille, N.D.) hauled in his first touchdown catch of his career on the opening series of the fourth quarter as Goska found the 6-foot-5 target wide open after a play-action pass on a 4th-and-1 from the USD 25-yard line.
Goska went 6-for-9 on that drive for 55 yards. Then, after the Sioux defense forced just the second Cole Zwiefelhofer punt of the contest, the Sioux signal caller orchestrated another near perfect scoring drive.
He went 8-for-9 on that drive for 75 yards, finding Ivery for his second touchdown from three yards out to make it a 37-31 tally.
On the ensuing kickoff, Blount made his only mistake of the game as redshirt freshman Baylee Carr (Hazen, N.D.) stripped the return man and senior Johnnie Daniels (Miami, Fla.) recovered the third fumble of the game for UND on the Coyotes' 19-yard line. USD had only lost two fumbles all season coming into the contest, which were the fewest in the FCS.
Three plays later Goska found Anderson in the back of the end zone with four minutes, seven seconds to play and cap what would turn out to be an improbable comeback. UND forced the Coyotes into a three-and-out and USD head coach Ed Meierkort opted to punt with two minutes, 27 seconds left on the clock, but the Sioux were able to run out the clock as junior Mitch Sutton (Plover, Wis.) rushed five times for 15 yards.
This was the final game of UND's transition to Division I and the Great West Football Conference as the Sioux will be playoff eligible next season as first-year members of the Big Sky Conference.