From the Herald vault: UND beat NDSU by inches in 2003 and solidified a legacy for Digger Anderson
On fourth-and-1 at the UND 16-yard line in overtime, North Dakota State handed the ball to running back Rod Malone with the then-Sioux already leading 28-21.
Malone took Bison quarterback Tony Stauss’ pitch and lunged forward.
He was met head on by UND linebackers Digger Anderson and Eric Halstenson.
That stuff is an iconic moment in the UND-NDSU rivalry and is now the last memory of a matchup that will be restarted Saturday in Fargo after 12 dormant years.
(Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Herald in September 2015)
“I remember (NDSU) called a timeout, and we went off the field and the crowd was jacked,” Halstenson said of the moments leading up to the fourth-down stop. “The coaches said what play they would run. They lined up and the whole team knew what the play would be. Our coaches were all over it.”
Halstenson, a sophomore from Grand Forks Red River, met Malone at the same time as Anderson, who took a knee to the helmet on the play and was dazed as the crowd went nuts.
“I just remember Lee Smith standing over me and saying, “Are you okay? We won,’ “ Anderson recalls. “I had blood coming through my teeth, but I knew what was going on.”
By the time Anderson regained his whereabouts, Joe Wilson and Matt Vanderpan had already snagged the Nickel Trophy.
“I didn’t even know where it was,” Anderson said. “I caught up to it on the other side.”
UND defensive back Adam Stratton, a senior captain, suffered a hip injury in that game and was on crutches on the sidelines as the key play unfolded.
“Oh man, that was just unbelievable,” Stratton said. “I can’t explain the feeling. I couldn’t run on the field because of those crutches, but I remember the place erupting. The atmosphere was electric. I still get chills thinking about it.”
UND wide receiver Caleb Johnson, whose touchdown catch gave UND the go-ahead points in overtime to set up the fourth-down stop, watched the final play on one knee on the sideline.
“I was hoping and wishing and praying,” Johnson said. “If (Malone) doesn’t get stood up on that play … if he gets any push … that’s a first down. I remember a huge eruption of emotion.”
The final play of the 2003 game is one of lore for Anderson, who is considered one of the program’s greats.
From 2002-05, he earned 15 different All-America awards, including 10 different first-team accolades. He was a two-time NCC Most Valuable Linebacker.
As a senior in 2005, the Coon Rapids, Minn., native became the fifth player in UND history be named a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist. He graduated with 366 career tackles. including a school-record 229 solo stops.
But, Anderson was almost a Bison player. Digger even owned a North Dakota State sweatshirt, and he claims to have been 90 to 95 percent sold on going to Fargo.
At the time, NDSU assistant coach Donovan Larson was recruiting Anderson but left for a job at Hamline University.
From there, former UND assistant Tom Dosch brought Dale Lennon to Anderson’s house for a visit.
“I flipped and it went to 50-50,” said Anderson, who now lives in Owatonna, Minn. “When I got to campus and met Lennon and the guys, I was completely flipped. I’m glad I went that way.”
Anderson said the forgotten big plays from the 2003 game belong to Travis Lueck, who reeled in a 69-yard touchdown pass from John Bowenkamp and another 59-yarder in the fourth quarter.
“Lueck had a one-handed grab against Bobby Babich in the north end zone,” Anderson said.
Stratton remembers the importance of the matchup as Bison week loomed.
“It’s a game that you circle on the calendar as soon as the schedule comes out,” Stratton said. “You lay it all on the line. It’s the one game you want to win every year. That week leading up, we practiced lifting 45-pound plates at practice and called it pumping the Nickel Trophy.”
In Stratton’s five years on campus, his recruiting class won four of the Bison matchups.
“Until 2001, we never had a national championship and that was your national championship,” Halstenson said.
“I don’t see how anyone can argue the other side of that point,” he said of the game getting played every year. “It’s weird to say, but it’s a hole in my heart. It’s a big part of both schools.”
And the 2003 game wasn’t lost on the players. They knew the rivalry was headed for a break.
“You couldn’t ask for a better conclusion from our point of view,” UND linebacker Andy Dahlen said.
Johnson’s touchdown in overtime barely came across the goalline.
“It was inches,” he said. “It was fitting that the last Division II time they met, the reality was that it boiled down to inches. The touchdown was by inches and the tackle was by inches.”