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UND scores 28 unanswered points to stun Northern Arizona 38-31

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota safety Cole Reyes asked quarterback Keaton Studsrud to grab ahold of the Gatorade cooler. After wandering around midfield, the junior captains finally found and soaked head coach Bubba Schweigert. Meanwhile, Kool &...

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University of North Dakota wide receiver Demun Mercer (89) celebrates after completing a pass for a University of North Dakota first down in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against Northern Arizona University at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS - North Dakota safety Cole Reyes asked quarterback Keaton Studsrud to grab ahold of the Gatorade cooler.

After wandering around midfield, the junior captains finally found and soaked head coach Bubba Schweigert.

Meanwhile, Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" rang throughout the Alerus Center as running back John Santiago hoisted the Big Sky Conference championship trophy into the air.

It was a stunning scene for how most of Saturday played out against Northern Arizona.

No. 12 UND scored 28 unanswered points to beat the Lumberjacks 38-31 and clinch a share of the school's first Big Sky championship.

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UND, which has a bye next weekend, finishes the regular season on a nine-game winning streak. The Fighting Hawks are 9-2 overall and 8-0 in the Big Sky.

"I don't even have any words to say," said Studsrud, who played through a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the past two weeks. "It was a great moment. We were fighting, scratching, doing anything we can to win."

UND trailed 31-10 to Northern Arizona with 9 minutes, 20 seconds left in the third quarter. The Lumberjacks finished a 12-play drive with a halfback pass from Kendyl Taylor to Jonathan Baldwin for an 11-yard score.

The Fighting Hawks countered quickly with a Santiago 15-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 31-17 with 6:30 left in the third.

UND then scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. UND running back Brady Oliveira threw a halfback pass for a 2-yard touchdown to Luke Fiedler to make it 31-24 with 7:58 left in the fourth.

The Fighting Hawks tied the game at 31 when Demun Mercer caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Studsrud with 4:21 to play.

UND's biggest play then came on defense, where cornerback Deion Harris intercepted NAU quarterback Blake Kemp and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to give the Fighting Hawks the lead with 2:43 remaining.

The Lumberjacks responded with a final drive deep into UND territory. Kemp scrambled for a 13-yard gain down to the UND 19 with 65 seconds to go.

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But NAU would turn the ball over on downs. On fourth down, Kemp went deep down the left sideline for the end zone where his wide receiver fell down after contact with Harris.

UND was then able to kneel out the remaining clock.

"We really battled and believed and played for each other," Schweigert said. "Our guys decided at halftime that they were going to come out and really play. It showed a lot of spirit and heart and that's what's special about this team."

Kemp finished with 416 passing yards and three touchdowns as NAU scored more points than any Big Sky program against UND this season. Kemp was 33 for 56 passing with two interceptions. Both Emmanuel Butler (nine catches, 106 yards) and Elijah Marks (eight catches, 115 yards) eclipsed the 100-yard mark.

Studsrud, who missed a few plays with his ailing shoulder, finished 13 for 34 for 252 yards.

UND wide receiver Demun Mercer, a transfer from Texas State, ended with seven catches for 147 yards, becoming the first UND player to eclipse 100 yards receiving all season.

Oliveira ended with 103 rushing yards, while Santiago chipped in 60 yards and two touchdowns.

"I think any time you let a good team hang around like that, you let those things happen," said NAU coach Jerome Souers, whose team dropped to 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big Sky. "We played hard and sometimes played well, but we didn't do enough to win. Credit North Dakota and coach Schweigert. They're a fine football team."

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The NCAA FCS Playoff Committee releases its 24-team field Nov. 20 at 9 a.m. on ESPNU.

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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