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UND FOOTBALL: UND beats Northern Colorado 24-21

UND defensive back Daryl Brown leaps on top of a Northern Colorado player to help UND teammates tackle the ball carrier in the first half of Saturday's game. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

For three-plus quarters, UND appeared to be headed for another home loss -- one that could have turned out to be one of the more demoralizing setbacks in program history.

Instead, a dose of good fortune -- rarely seen in UND football this season -- struck at the right time.

UND capitalized on a late Northern Colorado turnover and scored the winning touchdown on Ryan Bartels' 11-yard pass to Greg Hardin in the closing minutes as North Dakota downed the Bears 24-21 on Saturday before 5,984 fans -- likely the smallest crowd to watch UND football in the 13-year history of the Alerus Center.

"It feels really good," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "I'm really happy for the kids. That's what it's all about; singing the school song in the locker room."

UND improved to 2-5 in the Big Sky Conference and 3-7 overall while the Bears dropped to 0-6 and 1-9. UND has struggled mightily at home this season, beating only non-scholarship Valparaiso.

A loss to the Bears, whose only win came against an NAIA program in August, could have sunk the season to a new low. Instead, UND had a chance to celebrate and also gave its 17 seniors a pleasant memory as they left the Alerus for the last time.

"Looking into the eyes of our seniors was awesome," said Bartels, who threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns.

UND trailed 21-6 in the third quarter but managed to pull itself back into contention on a 26-yard Zeb Miller field goal and Bartels' 31-yard scoring strike to Kenny Golladay.

UND, however, couldn't sustain much offense in the fourth quarter. Its first possession went three-and-out and its second resulted in an interception, as Kyle Griffin picked off Bartels at the UNC 22.

Finally, however, UND got a break -- something that has been rare this season.

Tromaine Dennis, UNC's bruising running back, fumbled at the Bears' 31. Dominique Bennett forced the fumble on a straight-ahead run and Seth Stanchik pounced on it.

"He was trying to cut back and I was shadowing him," said Bennett. "I hit him and the ball bounced out"

Five plays later, Bartels hit Hardin for the 11-yard TD. Bartels then found Golladay in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion and the small crowd finally got the chance to see UND catch a break on its home turf.

UNC's final drive ended when safety Will Lewis picked off Lobato at the UND 25 with 1:12 left. Game over.

"It was frustrating football for a little bit," Mussman said. "But we finally created a turnover at a crucial time. We've been struggling with that all year, getting that break whether it be a turnover or whatever.

"Then we score and go for two. And for us to finish it off that way defensively was very fitting. It was a great relief for our coaching staff and players."

UND, however, won without a run game.

North Dakota was held to four yards on the ground. But Bartels managed to move the chains as he had success with slant patterns much of the day. Jameer Jackson caught 11 passes for 89 yards while Hardin caught seven for 95 and set two more school receiving records in the process.

The history of the series indicated the game would be close. In 25 prior meetings, dating back to the Division II days in the North Central Conference, only one point had separated the teams.

The game again came down to the final minute as UND and UNC are now tied 13-13 in the all-time series between the schools.

And the win also lifted the spirits of a program that is suffering one of its worst seasons since the mid-1980s.

How much pressure the program is under, however, is up for debate as UND heads into its season finale next Saturday at UC Davis.

"There is always pressure in any situation," Mussman said. "We go out there every week and put all of our work on the line. And you put yourself on the line as a player and a coach.

"It's more frustration than pressure. We put enough pressure on ourselves as coaches and players. Any external pressure won't be as great as we put on ourselves and the players.

"Our kids could have shut it down and said, 'Oh, well.' But they kept battling and found a way to win a football game."