GRAND FORKS, N.D. (UND Athletics) -- Lenny Nelson's fourth-quarter 58-yard interception return for a touchdown helped North Dakota to a gritty 17-10 home win over Portland State Saturday afternoon at the Alerus Center. Trailing 10-0-7 heading into the final frame, Nelson corralled a tipped pass off the hands of Jaxson Turner and raced untouched to the house to put the Fighting Hawks on top for good.
The UND defense was charged with holding that slim lead in the second half despite the Vikings controlling the time of possession, logging nearly 11 minutes in the third quarter alone. They picked up a North Dakota offense that never got going in the second half, recording just 58 yards after halftime and went without a first down until the final six minutes.
"I saw Jaxson batted the ball and I just took it from there and saw the green light," Nelson said about his game-changing play to start the fourth quarter. "We were out there for a long time in the second half but no one gave up out there. You saw guys going to the sideline tired but no one giving up and every one out there fighting."
Fighting is what UND is doing for its playoff life. With a 6-4 overall record, North Dakota remains affixed in the mix of playoff worthy teams for the 24-team FCS playoff field. A mess of teams across the nation have as many as four losses now following a crazy Saturday, making next week's regular season finale all that important.
"We keep telling the guys that we're in this," UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said of his team's playoff chances. "You never know, so you've got to just keep taking things one game at a time and get to 7-4. I was really happy we could send those guys (his 16 seniors) out with a win today (in their final regular season home game)."
UND (6-4) got on the board first when Nate Ketteringham got things going on the ground. After he'd run for a 34-yard scamper in the first possession, on the second drive, Ketteringham converted a 3rd-and-8 with a rush up the middle to the Portland State 7-yardline. He then scrambled down to the goaline on first down before punching it in a play later for a 7-0 Fighting Hawks lead.
But, the offense stalled from there. The Fighting Hawks were only able to gain 92 yards after the first quarter, ultimately leaving the game into the hands of its defense. They obliged. After stopping a long 17-play, 86-yard PSU drive with a 25-yard field goal, UND had a pair of sacks on the Vikings' last possession of the half to keep the score at 7-3 heading into the locker room.
In the second half, PSU strung together another long, sustained drive but this time converted it into a touchdown, with a 4-yard Davis Alexander rush to give the Vikings the lead. It was part of his 70 yards rushing for the Viks' starting quarterback. PSU looked in good position to potentially add to its lead until Alexander threw a pass that was deflected off the hands of Jaxson Turner and found Nelson's awaiting arms. His 58-yard return was the first score for the UND defense this season and provided a much-needed boost.
Turnovers would be key as Jalen Morrison recovered a fumble on the next Vikings possession to thwart another opportunity. After the teams traded punts, UND's offense finally awoke with just over seven minutes to go to help salt away precious clock. Ketteringham hit Noah Wanzekfor a 22-yard hookup with under six minutes remaining for a third-down conversion, part of four first downs for UND on that drive alone. Wanzek again snared a pass down to the PSU six-yardline, but left UND with a 4-and-1 and a decision to make, leading, 14-10.
UND decided to try to coax PSU offsides and did, giving North Dakota a first down and goal-to-go at the three. Portland State was able to keep UND out the endzone, however, forcing a Brady Leach 19-yard field goal to make it 17-10 with under a minute remaining. The Fighting Hawks defense again rose to the occasion, not allowing the Vikings into UND territory as the horn sounded.
Donnell Rodgers had 11 total tackles to lead the Fighting Hawks defense while Noah Larson added eight stops, including two for loss.
North Dakota (6-4) heads to Flagstaff, Ariz., next week for its regular season finale at Northern Arizona University.
*UND honored its 16 seniors prior to the game, all playing in their final regular season home game.
*Cade Peterson had a pair of punts of 60-plus yards. He boomed the 60-yarder down to the PSU 7 in the 1st half then later had another that bounced into the endzone for a touchback on a 66-yard rocket.
*Nelson's pick-six was the first defensive score of the season for the UND defense.
*Mason Bennett had 1.5 sacks to move into the top 10 in UND's single season record book. He trails current UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt (11.0) by three sacks (shared with Wes Atkinson).
*UND won despite totaling just 92 yards of total offense in the final three quarters combined.
*Nate Ketteringham needed just eight completions to earn the win, all coming by three receivers (Wanzek- 5, Brady Oliveira- 2, Luke Fiedler- 1)