Bears equipped with confidence this timeGRAND FORKS — Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. can pinpoint the Bears’ turning point this season. One year removed from a winless season, the Bears have won three of their last four games entering Saturday afternoon’s season finale against the University of North Dakota in Greeley, Colo.
By: Tom Miller, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. can pinpoint the Bears’ turning point this season. One year removed from a winless season, the Bears have won three of their last four games entering Saturday afternoon’s season finale against the University of North Dakota in Greeley, Colo.
“The crazy thing is when I saw us make the turn after a loss to Northern Arizona,” Collins said. “For the first time after a loss, I saw the pain in our guys. I never really saw that before. I felt like the turn started to come then.”
Collins was referencing UNC’s lone loss in this four-game stretch, a tight 12-10 defeat to Northern Arizona, a playoff-caliber team currently tied for first place in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-1 league record.
UNC’s three league wins are the program’s most since joining the Big Sky in 2006. The Bears are also seeking their first three-game winning streak since 2003.
“They’re playing with a lot of energy and a lot of confidence,” UND offensive coordinator Greg Breitbach said. “They’re a better defensive team than they were last year. Last year, you could see the talent level of their defense. Now, when they’re playing with confidence, they’re pretty good.”
The Bears are coming off a 42-34 victory over Weber State in which quarterback Seth Lobato passed for 418 yards and four touchdowns.
“The kids are starting to believe in themselves,” Collins Jr. said. “They prepare and expect to win. It’s a world of difference. When things get tight or something goes bad, there isn’t the here-we-go-again feeling.”
Northern Colorado’s goals against UND aren’t all that different than North Dakota’s goals. UND is looking to finish 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the league, while the Bears are also hoping for a 4-4 finish in the Big Sky.
“We also want to send our seniors out with a win on senior day; something we haven’t done at this level,” Collins Jr. “We also look at it as bringing back an old rivalry. For us, it’s the only school in the conference as an old North Central Conference opponent. Our fans are familiar with the school and the great tradition.”
The UND-Northern Colorado series began in 1980 and the all-time series is tied at 12-12.
UND beat Northern Colorado a year ago in a non-conference matchup in Greeley. Senior Brent Goska led a fourth-quarter comeback that culminated in Zeb Miller’s 54-yard field goal with less than two minutes to play for a 27-25 victory.
“The biggest lesson we learned from last year is a lead is never safe in this conference,” Collins Jr. said. “We drive down and score and then give up a big kickoff return. They drive close enough for a 54-yard field goal. We felt we let that one get away, but North Dakota played their butts off.”
UND survived an incredible passing performance by the Bears, led by receiver Patrick Walker’s 10 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns. Walker’s performance was the league’s all-time best output until UND’s Greg Hardin surpassed that total against Montana earlier this season.
Collins Jr. said UND’s offense presents more challenges this season than in the 2011 matchup.
“Now they’re even deeper — as far as having the ability to throw the ball,” Collins Jr. said. “They can run and throw, so we have to be ready on both sides.”