Fighting Hawks complete perfect home season, await FCS playoff fate

GRAND GORKS, N.D. (UND Athletics) -- North Dakota outscored Southern Utah, 19-0, in the second half to roll to a 36-18 victory on Saturday afternoon from the Alerus Center.

With the win, UND reaches the elusive seven-win mark and will find out whether it has been selected for the FCS playoffs tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNU. The Fighting Hawks, who needed a win, rallied from a 15-7 deficit to score 29 of the game’s next 32 points to complete a perfect 6-0 home record.

Aided by a season-high 212 yards on the ground, UND posted a season-best 498 yards of total offense. The mark passes last week’s total of 483 yards, giving the Hawks 981 yards of total offense over the last two games.

Luke Skokna finished with the best game of his young career, rushing for 114 yards and two scores on 11 carries. The rookie, who found out he was getting his redshirt pulled just prior to the game, averaged 10.4 yards per carry and becomes the first freshman to rush for over 100 yards since John Santiago in 2015.

Nate Ketteringham and James Johannesson each tallied 50 and 46 yards on the ground, respectively, helping the Hawks rush for a team total of 212 yards.

The senior gunslinger rebounded from a pair of interceptions in the first half to throw for 286 yards and two touchdowns, completing 71% of his passes. Six of those balls went to Noah Wanzek, who recorded his third straight 100-yard receiving game. The Jamestown, N.D., native was forced to exit the game in the third quarter with an injury and did not return.

Travis Toivonen and Garett Maag picked up the slack with Wanzek on the sideline, combining for eight catches, 109 yards, and two touchdowns. Toivonen made all three of his grabs count, finishing with 72 yards and a score while Maag hauled in five passes for 37 yards and a touchdown.

On defense, UND swarmed quarterback Chris Helbig for five sacks, led by senior Andre Steiger’s 2.5. Hayden Blubaugh and Caden White each tallied one while Graham DeVore added the final sack and blocked a field goal.

Evan Holm, who returned to the starting lineup for his third game of the season, finished with four tackles, a pass breakup, and his first interception of the season. The pick could not have come at a better time, thwarting a Southern Utah drive and allowing UND to take a 17-15 lead at halftime.

Senior Donnell Rodgers was all over the field once again, tallying a game-high 14 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, and a forced fumble. Rodgers reached double figures in tackles for the eighth time this season and has now led the team in stops in 10 of the 11 games. Hayden Galvin added 11 tackles from the safety position, including eight solo stops.

After a missed field goal by Southern Utah to open the game, Ketteringham and the UND offense took advantage. The senior completed five of six passes for 59 yards and ran for 10 yards, before firing a dart to Maag for a 17-yard score and an early 7-0 lead.

Neither team could get much going offensively for the remainder of the quarter, as penalties hindered a promising drive for the Hawks near the end of the stanza.

UND looked to have the Thunderbirds stopped once again following a Blubaugh and DeVore sack, but a botched punt return gave the ball back to the visitors at the UND 30. SUU took advantage of the turnover by punching it in three plays later, tying the game at seven with just over 11 minutes to play in the first half.

The turnover bug plagued the Fighting Hawks again on the next drive, as Ketteringham’s pass was deflected and intercepted to give the ball right back to Southern Utah in prime field position after a long return. Two plays later, Helbig found Duckett out of the backfield on an 18-yard pass to give the visitors a 14-7 lead with 9:27 remaining in the half.

The Hawks answered right back with a pair of big plays themselves. First, Ketteringham found Wanzek down the sideline, where the senior dragged a defender for 35 yards, before the senior then connected with Toivonen for a 30-yard score to pull the hosts within one, 15-14, and grab the momentum.

As the half drew closer to its close, UND nearly gave more points to Southern Utah following Ketteringham’s second interception of the afternoon. However, Evan Holm came up with his first pick of the season just in front of the goal line and the subsequent 31-yard return gave the Hawks one final possession before the end of the period.

UND turned it into points, as Brady Leach drilled a 43-yard field goal as time expired to give the hosts a 17-15 advantage heading into the break.

Both teams punted on their opening possessions of the second half, but UND was able to extend its lead on its second drive. Skokna started the drive with a 34-yard rush to move the Hawks to midfield, before catches by Wanzek and Alex Wilde put the hosts in the red zone. UND could not find the end zone, but pushed the advantage to five following a 31-yard field goal from Leach.

Southern Utah answered back with a long drive of its own, reaching the 21 of the Fighting Hawks, but was held to a field goal following a sack by Andre Steiger to keep the UND lead at a pair, 20-18, with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter.

The two-point game was short lived, with the Hawks only needing six plays to move 75 yards for another score. Skokna busted through the middle for a 28-yard touchdown run to give the green and white its largest lead of the day at the time, 27-18, at the end of the third quarter.

Leach made it a 3-for-3 afternoon with his third make the day, this time from 25 yards away, to extend the advantage to 12, 30-18, with just under nine minutes to play in the contest.

Skokna’s capped off his career day in style, spinning his way for a 34-yard score, his second of the day, to complete the 36-18 victory for the Fighting Hawks.

North Dakota will find out its FCS playoff fate tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNU.

NOTES: Donnell Rodgers broke UND’s Division I record for total tackles in a season, passing Will Ratelle’s 2015 mark of 110 … The trio of Wanzek, Toivonen, and Maag become the first receivers in UND’s DI history to all have at least 10 touchdown catches in their careers … Rodgers reached double digit tackles for the eighth time this season … Luke Skokna’s touchdown run was the first of his career … Brady Leach connected on three field goals for the second time in his career (Nov. 17, 2018 at NAU) … Noah Wanzek exited Saturday’s game with an injury and did not return … UND caps off a perfect home season for the fifth time since moving to the Alerus Center in 2001 (2003, 2004, 2007, 2016, and 2019).