A record-setting day at the Alerus Center ended in a dramatic and triumphant way for the North Dakota football team as the Green and White used a 32-yard scoring strike from senior Braden Hanson to junior Greg Hardin with 12 seconds left to secure a 40-34 victory over Montana.
Hanson threw for a school and Big Sky record 660 yards and five touchdowns, while Hardin hauled in a career-high 12 of the left hander's school-record 42 completions. But, it was those final 32 yards that proved to be the difference in the first meeting between these two schools as conference foes.
Hardin's last grab also established a school and Big Sky record for the speedy wideout, who finished with 333 receiving yards. Three of those 12 receptions went for touchdowns, pushing his FCS-leading total to 12 on the season.
It was his third three-touchdown game of the season for Hardin and he was not the only UND pass catcher having a big day. The five-foot-11, 170-pounder had plenty of help.
Junior Blair Townsend led the team with a career-high 13 receptions for a career-high 152 yards and redshirt freshman Jameer Jackson had his second straight 100-yard receiving day with eight grabs for a career-high 124 yards.
"This is a really big win for our football program," UND head coach Chris Mussman said. "You look at the history and tradition of Montana. They are one of the top echelon teams in the FCS and have been for years and years and years.
"For us to get that win and in the fashion that we did is a big deal for UND football."
UND improved to 4-4 on the season and 2-3 in league play, while the Griz fell to 3-5 and 1-4 in the conference.
Early on, it did not look like it would take late-game heroics to snap a three-game losing streak for UND as Hanson and the offense raced out to a 31-17 lead at halftime. The fifth-year senior threw four first-half touchdown passes and had 410 yards by the break, while Hardin already had established a school-record with 243 receiving yards.
Montana erased its 14-point halftime deficit thanks to shutting out UND in the third quarter 17-0. Reserve quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann had a pair of touchdowns in the quarter, including a 27-yarder to Ellis Henderson that put the Griz in the lead for the first time at 34-31.
Hanson marched UND down the field on its next possession, but the signal caller came up short on a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-1 from Montana eight-yard line, keeping momentum on the side of the visitors.
That is when the UND defense stepped up and pitched its own fourth-quarter shutout. The unit would force five straight punts, but it did not come easy for the offense.
After UM safety Bo Tully ended a potential go-ahead scoring drive with his team's third interception of the game on the Griz goalline, the UND buckled down again, forcing a huge three-and-out.
This time, Hanson opened the drive with three straight completions to Jackson that netted 55 yards and moved the team all the way down to the Montana 31-yard line.
The drive would stall at the UM 17-yard line, but junior Zeb Miller would tie the game from 34 yards out at 34-34 with two minutes remaining.
The Griz picked up one first down on their ensuing possession, but the defense came up with yet another key stop and gave Hanson and Hardin 39 seconds to work with from their own 41-yard line.
Hanson went to Townsend twice on the drive and once to Hardin before the record-breaking duo hooked up for the game-winning score from 32 yards out. The play was designed to pick up a few more yards to set up a potential field goal try, but Hardin slipped off a defender and ran to pay dirt for his third receiving score of the game.
"Thank goodness our defense bailed us out," Hanson said. "These guys have been taking a lot of heat, but this was a true team win and I could not be happier."
A bad snap on the extra-point attempt kept the advantage at six points, but senior defensive end Jay Nelson forced a fumble and picked up his second sack of the game as time expired.