Editor's note: In this series, the Grand Forks Herald's veteran sports staff ranks their top five memorable moments. Herald sports editor Wayne Nelson continues his list with this No. 4 memorable moment.
UND won the NCAA Division II national football title in 2001 with a dramatic win over Grand Valley State, a 17-14 triumph sealed with a late touchdown that came as a light rain fell on Braly Stadium in Florence, Ala.
At the time, no other win could seemingly top what UND had accomplished in Florence.
Well, that thought was put to the test in 2006 when Division II UND -- knowing that it would make the move to the FCS level in the near future -- stunned Northern Iowa 35-31 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Northern Iowa was ranked No. 3 in the FCS at the time. The Panthers were playing their home opener before 11,000 fans and UND seemed to be a good fit for UNI.
The game was a roller coaster as the teams traded big play after big play. It was a hold-your-breath game for much of the fourth quarter.
That only seemed only fitting as it also matched part of the Herald’s trip to Cedar Falls. Photographer Jay Pickthorn and myself boarded a turbo-prop aircraft in Minneapolis for the short flight to Cedar Rapids, where we were scheduled to drive the remaining 62 miles to Cedar Falls.
As we gained speed on a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport runway, the pilot hit the brakes just before liftoff. The plane came to a jarring stop. As we sat in silence, the pilot explained the situation. After hearing that we would return to the gate, the pilot closed with these unforgettable words: “We need an airplane that’s safe to fly.”
UND’s fourth-quarter road performance also was unforgettable. The teams combined for four touchdowns in the final five minutes, with UND’s winning score coming on a Reed Manke-to-Weston Dressler 50-yard pass with 54 seconds to go.
UND also received a breakout performance from freshman running back Ryan Chappell, who rushed for 121 yards on nine carries.
#UNDFB125 Moments: In 2006, UND stuns No. 4 Northern Iowa, 35-31, to post its first ranked win over an FCS school in program history. The Sioux were still DII members at the time. pic.twitter.com/XhlLwkmyfz— North Dakota Football (@UNDfootball) September 16, 2019
The explosiveness in the game’s final quarter, however, masked the fact that UND more than held its own on the line of scrimmage against an experienced, playoff-tested FCS program.
“If you wrote this as a script, no one would believe it because it was so crazy at the end,” said former UND coach Dale Lennon. “It gives us credibility in every sense -- as a Division II program, as a future (FCS) program and where the program currently is at.”
Dressler, meanwhile, went on to become a star in the CFL. His performance at UNI was electric. UND trailed 31-28 with 1:27 to go. In many FCS games against Division II opponents, that lead should have been safe -- especially at home.
But Dressler caught a 20-yard pass from Manke on the first play after the UNI TD. On the next play, Dressler took another pass from Manke and used his deceptive speed to stun the UNI secondary for the final 50 yards.
Two seasons later, UND moved up to the FCS level. The win at UNI, in hindsight, showed UND’s program was ready to make the jump.
But where did the win rank in UND football history?
“It was one of our more exciting games,” said Lennon at that time. “But that national championship win is up there, too.”
It’s high on my list, too, coming in at No. 4.
Herald Top 5 memories
4. UND’s win at Northern Iowa set the stage for the move to FCS