North Dakota football fans are growing accustomed to exciting finishes in the Big Sky and they were treated to another one on Saturday. This time the result was a 33-29 victory for UND over Southern Utah as 16 seniors were able to savor their final home game at the Alerus Center.
It was the second straight meeting in this series where the UND defense came up with a big turnover in the final minute on what were potential game-winning touchdown drives by the Thunderbirds.
In last year's 26-20 victory by UND in Cedar City, defensive back Darly Brown picked off SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen in the end zone to cap the win, while this time around, junior linebacker Dominique Bennett strip-sacked the senior signal caller with 51 ticks remaining.
Fellow linebacker Cordero Finley pounced on the loose ball, but the SUU defense held the UND offense to a three-and-out following the turnover. After a 50-yard punt by senior Brett Cameron pinned the T-Birds at their own eight-yard line, Sorensen had 26 seconds left to pull off a miracle, but senior safety Erik Mersereau batted away his Hail Mary attempt on the final play to seal the victory.
UND improved to 5-5 on the season and 3-4 in league play, while SUU fell to 4-6 (3-4 BSC) as the Big Sky newcomers matched up for the sixth straight season. The win pulled UND even in the all-time series and was the first over the T-Birds at the Alerus Center in three tries.
"I am so proud of this team and especially this senior class," UND head coach Chris Mussman said. "They have been through a lot during their careers and to go out and get a win like this in their final home game is truly special."
Senior Mitch Sutton rushed for two touchdowns and it was his five-yard score in the third quarter that gave the home team its first lead of the contest at 26-22. He finished with 17 carries and 65 yards.
"That run signifies what Mitch brings to this team," Mussman said. "He carried us on his back and would not go down. That was a huge play in the game."
Sorensen would not let UND keep the momentum for long, however, as the T-Birds briefly reclaimed the lead on a 15-yard touchdown reception by Henna Brown early in the fourth quarter. Sorensen threw for 363 yards, but amassed only 120 of those after halftime.
Fortunately, it took just three plays and a 15-yard personal foul penalty by SUU for UND to regain the lead. This time the lead would hold as Jake Miller raced in from 36 yards out on a perfectly executed run play.
The Thunderbirds outgained UND by more than 200 yards in the contest (520 to 308), but the home team's defense only yielded seven second-half points. The offense managed to get going after halftime as well, scoring three touchdowns after being held to just one before the break.
It was UND's first touchdown of the game that may have been the most important. It came with the home team trailing 15-0 with just under 10 minutes to play in the opening half.
After a five-yard touchdown run by Brian Wilson, junior Greg Hardin took the ensuing kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown to breathe life back into UND sidelines. After a defensive stop, Sutton would then add a 1-yard plunge late in the first half to cut the deficit to 15-13.
The first-half scoring was not done as Sorensen and company were not satisfied with taking a two-point lead into halftime. They quickly moved the ball down the field for their third touchdown of the second quarter. Myles Crawford-Harris capped a four-play, 75-yard drive with a 4-yard scoring run.
That made it 22-13 at the half, but UND's comeback began on the opening possession of the third quarter as senior Braden Hanson found classmate Ethan Magstadt from eight yards out to cap a drive that took 13 plays and over six minutes off the clock.
Magstadt finished with a career-high three catches for 17 yards and the touchdown was the first of his career. Hanson finished the day 22-for-36 for 195 yards.
Hardin had a team-high six catches for 48 yards, pushing him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. He now stands third on the single-season charts with 1,036 yards through 10 games.
UND now has a week off before the season finale at Northern Colorado on Nov. 17.
Game Notes: Game captains were Ian McGurran, Ross Brenneman, Caleb Gillson and Brett Cameron … Junior Chavon Mackey came down with the first interception of his career in the first quarter … Greg Hardin's 98-yard kickoff return was the first for UND since Ismael Bamba took one back 95 yards at Stephen F. Austin in 2009 … Hardin's return was also the second longest in school history … Ethan Magstad's 8-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was the first of his career … He had a career-high three catches in the contest … Mitch Sutton's 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was his second of the game and 11th of the season … He pushed his career total to 19, which is now tied for 10th on the UND career charts … Hardin finished with six catches for 48 yards and became the fifth play in UND history to record a 1,000-yard receiving season … He now stands third on the single-season charts with 1,036 yards … Magstadt's touchdown reception was also the 27th scoring strike of the season to set a new school record (2007 team had 26) … Senior Ross Brenneman's first quarter sack pushed his career total to 18.5, which is tied for second on the UND charts.