UND edges Thunderbirds
GRAND FORKS -- It hasn't been a great season for the University of North Dakota defense, which ranks 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference. So, there was reason for the defense to finally celebrate when it came up with one of its biggest stops of the season during UND's 33-29 win against Southern Utah on Saturday at the Alerus Center.
With Southern Utah driving and UND holding a precarious four-point lead, UND linebackers Dominique Bennett and Cordero Finley put the finishing touches on the win in the game's final minute before a season-low 7,144 fans.
The blitzing Bennett sacked SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen, causing him to fumble at the UND 34. Finley recovered. But the game wasn't quite over as UND had to ride out a Hail Mary pass attempt from Sorensen for the win -- one that evened North Dakota's record at 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the league.
"It was a great way for our defense to end, for as much as it's been maligned internally and externally," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "This was a big win for us."
UND now has a chance to finish the season -- its first in the Big Sky -- with a .500 league record and a winning record overall Nov. 17 in its season finale at Northern Colorado.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride this season but a win out there would be a nice end to the season," Mussman said.
The game mirrored UND's roller-coaster season. North Dakota dug itself a 15-0 hole in the first half before roaring back behind an electric 98-yard kickoff return from Greg Hardin and the possessed running of senior Mitch Sutton.
Trailing 15-0, UND finally got the jump it needed when Hardin scored on the 98-yard return. The junior slipped a tackle near the UND 20, then went wide and turned on his speed in front of the UND sideline to out run the last few SUU defenders.
"That woke us up," Mussman said. "That was the biggest thing; we finally had energy on the sideline."
The return also disrupted SUU the rest of the game. "We were afraid to kick it deep to him after that," said SUU coach Ed Lamb.
Sutton scored from 1 yard out with 2:03 left in the first half, cutting SUU's lead to 15-13. But the Thunderbirds responded with a quick strike, finishing a 75-yard, 90-second drive on Myles Crawford-Harris' 4-yard run with 32 seconds left.
The touchdown appeared back-breaking at the time and left SUU with a 22-13 halftime lead.
But the third quarter belonged to UND, which scored on Braden Hanson's 8-yard pass to Ethan Magstadt and again on Sutton's 5-yard run. His scoring burst gave UND a 26-22 lead.
"Mitch won't run away from anyone at this stage of his career, but he's a physical back," Mussman said. "You could see it in his eyes that he wanted the ball."
The roller-coaster ride wasn't over, though, as SUU scored on its next possession on a Henna Brown 15-yard pass from Sorensen, who finished with 363 passing yards.
But UND scored the game-winner on Jake Miller's 36-yard burst off the left side with 10:01 to go.
The 33-29 lead, however, looked shaky as Sorensen methodically guided SUU down the field. Neither Mussman or Lamb took any timeouts on the drive, which lasted 10 plays and took nearly 5½ minutes.
Bennett and Finley, however, stopped the drive with their blitz, which led to the turnover. It was a play that made it easier for UND to forget about the 520 yards it allowed against the Thunderbirds.
"There are times in football when you know you're going to get that stop," said UND senior defensive lineman Ross Brenneman. "Everyone was coming on that play. I got tea-kettled on that play. I was on my back when I saw it happen. I just laid there and said, 'Yes.' "
The game also was special for the 16 UND seniors who played for the last time at home. It was a group that led the program through a difficult five-year transition to Division I.
"It's getting down to the last games for us seniors," Sutton said. "There was a little extra fire."
SU 3 19 0 7 -- 29
UND 0 13 13 7 -- 33
SU-Colton Cook 35 FG, 7:07
SU-Fatu Moala 32 pass from Brad Sorensen (kick failed), 11:17
SU-Brian Wilson 5 run (run failed), 9:38
UND-Greg Hardin 98 kick return (Zeb Miller kick), 9:20
UND-Mitch Sutton 1 run (Miller run failed), 2:03
SU-Myles Crawford-Harris 4 run (Cook kick), :32
UND-Ethan Magstadt 8 pass from Braden Hanson (kick failed), 8:22
UND-Sutton 5 run (Miller kick), 2:43.
SU-Henna Brown 15 pass from Sorensen (Cook kick), 11:30
UND-Jake Miller 36 run (Z. Miller kick), 10:01
TEAM STATISTICS SU UND
First downs 23 18
Rushes-yards 39-157 26-113
Passing yards 363 195
Comp.-Att.-Int. 19-29-1 22-36-0
Total yards 520 308
Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 8-84 7-41
Punts-Avg. 4-41.8 6-47.3
RUSHING: SU, Wilson 31-156, Crawford-Harris 4-11, Lavell Ika 1-0, Sorensen 3-(-minus 10). UND, Sutton 17-65, J. Miller 5-53, Hanson 4-(-minus 5).
PASSING: SU, Sorensen 19-29-1, 363. UND, Hanson 22-36-0, 195.
RECEIVING: SU, Moala 5-166, Easton Pedersen 3-89, C.J. Morgan 4-38, Wilson 3-32, Griff McNabb 2-20, Brown 1-15, Crawford-Harris 1-3. UND, Blair Townsend 5-55, Hardin 6-48, Jameer Jackson 5-45, Kenny Golladay 2-27, Magstadt 3-17, J. Miller 1-3.