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NELSON: Experience counts, ask Richmond

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Richmond didn't have much going, trailing 24-7 midway through third quarter. More than 9,500 Alerus Center fans were roaring, too, sensing North Dakota's first Division I FCS playoff win was within reach.

University of North Dakota wide receiver Demun Mercer (89) looks back as he runs in for a Fighting Hawks touchdown in the first half of SaturdayÕs NCAA FCS Quarterfinal at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
University of North Dakota wide receiver Demun Mercer (89) looks back as he runs in for a Fighting Hawks touchdown in the first half of Saturday's NCAA FCS Quarterfinal at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Richmond didn't have much going, trailing 24-7 midway through third quarter. More than 9,500 Alerus Center fans were roaring, too, sensing North Dakota's first Division I FCS playoff win was within reach.

Richmond, however, grabbed the momentum, thanks to a running-into-kicker penalty and, later, a blocked punt. And they kept grabbing until the Spiders stole a win.

Thousands of stunned UND fans left the Alerus, likely amazed that the Spiders rallied for a 27-24 win and the right to take on Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.

It was a shocking loss for UND, no doubt. The program had come so far in such a short amount of time under coach Bubba Schweigert. The Fighting Hawks came in on a nine-game win streak and a Big Sky Conference championship to their credit.

And each week, UND pulled games out of the fire at the Alerus Center and moved on. Not this time. This was a playoff game, a different beast. And it didn't help that UND played a team with considerable playoff experience.

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And that may have tipped the scales in favor of Richmond.

Trailing 24-7, Richmond banked on its experience. Part of that experience was a trip to North Dakota last season when the Spiders were crushed by North Dakota State.

"It was probably the only thing we had going for us," said Richmond coach Danny Rocco of his team's experience. "I made a big deal about it all week. I was calling this game a second chance to get it right. When you're from the part of the country we're from, you don't frequent North Dakota much. I had been there only once in my life and we were beaten significantly last year.

"I played that card all week; that this was their second chance to get it right, to finish. And they bought into it a little bit. It got them into the mindset and it rekindled their feeling they had a year ago when they were defeated on the road.

"I think it allowed our guys to reach down a little deeper and fight. That's a big part of the playoff fight, being in those moments and learning how to adjust and fight through them. We kept fighting. They had a run last year in the postseason. Thy were committed to doing it again this year."

UND didn't have the FCS pedigree of Richmond. That didn't matter to Bubba. His team had a golden opportunity to advance.

"We went up 24-7 and lost the momentum," said Bubba. "Momentum swings in playoff games are more dramatic because you're playing against very good teams."

After the running-into-the-kicker penalty on a punt, Richmond maintained possession and scored a few plays later to trail 24-14. The Spiders later turned the blocked punt into three points, and now trailed by only a touchdown. The momentum clearly was on Richmond's side.

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"Give them credit," said Bubba. "They made some really good plays. We had a chance to close out a game. We have to learn from that as a program."

UND's 9-3 season ended too soon, even for a young team that surprised many. The loss did one thing; it whetted the FCS playoff appetite for the Hawks.

"We're a young team and we'll make sure we learn from this next year," said UND quarterback Keaton Studsrud. "Mark my words, we will."

Wayne Nelson is the sports editor at the Herald.


He has been with the Grand Forks Herald since 1995, serving as the UND football and basketball beat writer as well as serving as the sports editor.



He is a UND graduate and has been writing sports since the late 1970s.



Follow him on Twitter @waynenelsongf. You can reach him at (701) 780-1268 or wnelson@gfherald.com.
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