UND football fans came to the Alerus Center on Saturday expecting a showdown between All-American Fighting Hawks running back John Santiago and the FCS leading rusher, Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe.
The elite running showdown never materialized. Santiago was injured on the second play of the game and never returned. Protheroe dressed for warm-ups but never played due to an injury.
That didn't mean a letdown for the green and white faithful. The 10,097 in attendance were still treated to plenty of entertainment.
Playing in its fifth-straight one-score game, UND cornerback Torrey Hunt intercepted Cal Poly quarterback Dano Graves in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2 late in the fourth quarter to protect the Fighting Hawks' 31-24 win over No. 16 Cal Poly.
After starting the season 0-2, UND has now won three-straight games and improved to 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference. The Fighting Hawks travel to Sacramento State next weekend.
"That's a big step toward our goal as a team," UND wide receiver Luke Stanley said. "We want to be in the postseason and win the Big Sky. Now, we need to keep going and keep improving."
In Santiago's absence, UND sophomore Brady Oliveira rushed for 127 yards on 20 carries, eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark for the second week in a row.
Fighting Hawks quarterback Keaton Studsrud was 15-for-21 passing for 249 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was Studsrud's highest passing output since last year's matchup with Cal Poly in the season-finale when he threw for 255 yards.
Studsrud's longest pass play came with 11:07 left in the fourth quarter when he hit Stanley for a 74-yard score to make it 31-17 UND.
On third-and-13, Studsrud hit Stanley on an intermediate throw along the UND sideline. With plenty of room, Stanley raced toward the end zone. At the 20, Stanley stiff-armed Poly defensive back Kam Dennis en route to a touchdown.
Cal Poly, however, put a scare into UND after the Stanley score. The Mustangs went on a 98-yard scoring drive, which ended with a Carson McMurtrey 25-yard catch from Graves. The drive only took 67 seconds and cut the lead to 31-24.
After forcing UND into a three-and-out, Poly marched down the field again. Facing third-and-goal from the 2, though, Graves was intercepted by Hunt in the end zone with 1:39 left.
"When they're down in the red zone, they're really tough because they can do so many things," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "Who are you going to defend when they spread it to everybody? We were able to get a little pressure and Torrey was able to come back in after we had sat him out for a while to help him gather his thoughts. I was really proud of those guys to hang in there and make a play at the end."
After Hunt's second interception of the season, two 5-yard runs by UND running back Austin Gordon provided enough time for UND to kneel out the remaining clock.
Cal Poly, which boasts wins over Top 10 teams Montana and South Dakota State, came into the weekend averaging a FCS-best 362 rushing yards per game. UND held the Mustangs to a season-low 202 rushing yards.
"You can't be disappointed in our fight," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. "That's the most important thing to me. Last year, we didn't fight against these guys. (The Fighting Hawks) do a good job against us. We did a great job in the second half with how we play. But UND is extremely well-coached, as well coached as anyone in our league. They deserve a lot of credit for the win."