SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- The scenery at Alex G. Spanos Stadium -- the home of the Cal Poly Mustangs -- can’t be beat on a gorgeous October night in southern California.
With palm trees lining the street just outside the stadium along with a 75-degree temperature at kickoff, the atmosphere is unlike anything the University of North Dakota will see in the future as it fully transitions to the Midwest-based Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Hawks certainly will have fond memories of what’s likely their final trip to San Luis Obispo after the Hawks rallied for a 30-26 win over Cal Poly on Saturday night, Oct. 19 -- a win that puts the prospects of a winning season back on track.
And it was also the team’s first road win of the season in four tries.
UND, which improved to 4-3, won in dramatic fashion as Nate Ketteringham hit Alex Cloyd on a 39-yard scoring pass with 1:49 to go. UND faced a fourth-and-2 with the game -- and perhaps the season -- on the line. On a play-action pass, Cloyd was wide open 15 yards down field and ran untouched into the end zone.
The UND locker room was wild to say the least, as players and coaches knew what was at stake after last week.
“We knew it was a really important week,” said UND coach Bubba Schweigert. “We needed to get a win on the road. I thought our guys prepared hard this week and we got the positive result our football team really needed.
“We’re going to enjoy this one. We have a long trip home and we have to get back to work tomorrow.”
Cal Poly, 2-5, led most of the way as UND -- for three quarters -- struggled to find momentum.
UND played catch-up throughout the game before Brady Leach’s 23-yard field goal with 10:28 to play gave the Hawks a 24-23 lead.
Option-oriented Cal Poly, however, came back with a clock-chewing, 6 minute, 55-second, 50-yard drive that culminated with Colton Theaker’s 42-yard field goal for a 26-24 lead with 3:38 to play.
UND, however, came through when it mattered the most, driving 74 yards on nine plays to notch the game-winner.
The game-winning play also was used with similar success against UC Davis two weeks ago.
Cloyd wasn’t surprised the play was called.
“The guy who was man on me thought I was blocking so he shot his gun and I was wide open,” said Cloyd.
There was no defender within 10 yards of Cloyd when he caught the ball.
“We got the look we wanted,” said Schweigert of Cal Poly’s defensive scheme. “But Alex still has to execute that play. He got across the formation and there was a lot of traffic. Nate put it out there and the big guy rumbled into the end zone.”
While UND played from behind most of the game, it didn’t turn the ball over -- the first time that’s happened since the opening game against Drake.
Cal Poly led 17-7 at the half as its option game kept UND’s offense on the sideline much of the first half.
UND’s defense in the second half was more effective as it held the Mustangs to 63 yards in the third quarter and 53 yards in the final quarter.
On Cal Poly’s final possession, UND’s pressure on quarterback Jalen Hamler was intense. The Mustangs’ final drive ended when linebacker Noah Larson chased down the scrambling Hamler one yard short of a first down.
The game was costly injury-wise as the Hawks lost defensive linemen Mason Bennett and Jalen Morrison to first-half injuries.
“Everyone had to step up,” said UND linebacker Donnell Rodgers, who had 15 tackles including a sack.
With its strong second half, UND finished with 368 yards of offense to 363 for Cal Poly. Ketteringham threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns while James Johannesson rushed for 82 yards on 13 carries for a balanced attack.
UND now faces nationally ranked Montana State and Weber State in its next two games.
But it was all celebration late Saturday night in San Luis Obispo.
“This one really feels good,” said Schweigert.