GREELEY, Colo. — It was a fourth quarter of peaks and valleys for North Dakota placekicker Zeb Miller (Ankeny, Iowa) that ended in elation for both himself and the Fighting Sioux football team on Saturday afternoon at Nottingham Field. The up-and-down sequence made it fitting that the sophomore’s career-long, 54-yard field goal with less than two minutes to play sailed through the uprights with the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance as it propelled the Sioux (5-3) past future Big Sky foe Northern Colorado (0-9) 27-25.
Miller had just missed the first two field goals of his season earlier in the fourth quarter, including a 27-yard attempt that was blocked by the Bears that would have put UND ahead by eight points. He had made his first 11 kicks of the season, including a 41-yarder in the third quarter that put the Sioux up 24-19.
The block allowed the lethal passing combination of Bears’ quarterback Seth Lobato and wide receiver Patrick Walker to put NC ahead for the first time in the game on an 88-yard scoring connection on the second play of the next possession. The Bears’ second failed two-point conversion of the game, made it a 25-24 contest with just under four minutes to play.
Senior safety Dominique Hawkins (Plymouth, Minn.) returned the ensuing kickoff 59 yards to set up UND in prime field position at the Northern Colorado 39-yard line. However, the Bears’ defense held UND to just three yards, forcing head coach Chris Mussman to send out Miller for the long-field goal attempt.
“I told Zeb after the one got blocked that before it was over, we were going to need him,” Mussman said. “A 54-yarder to win the ball game was amazing. We’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Miller’s line-drive kick split the goal posts and sent the UND sideline into a wild celebration. Unfortunately, the field goal left just over a minute and half for Lobato and Walker to try another miraculous comeback. But this time, the Sioux defense held the Bears as senior Jay Nelson (Wheaton, Minn.) batted down a fourth-down attempt, sealing the first back-to-back road wins for the Sioux since the 2007 season.
Nelson and company forced four turnovers in the game and sacked Lobato five times despite giving up a season high in passing yardage. Lobato was responsible for all of those turnovers as he threw an interception and fumbled three times.
“Our guys our resilient and they are finding ways. They believe in each other,” Mussman said. “It’s like I told them last night, ‘we may not be the best team in the country, but we are a team.’ Our guys play for each other, like each other and that was the difference in this ball game.”
Walker caught 10 passes for a Big Sky record 315 yards and two touchdowns as Lobato threw for 430 yards and four scores in the contest, the Sioux defense made a series of timely plays to preserve the win.
Senior quarterback Brent Goska (Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.) threw for 206 yards for the second consecutive game as he helped the Sioux turn a pair of first-half turnovers by the Bears into touchdowns to help build a 21-13 advantage at the half.
Goska went in from a yard out to put the Sioux ahead 14-7 late in the second quarter. The Sioux fumbled twice on the drive, but were fortunate to fall on the miscues to maintain possession. Ninety-one of Goska’s passing yards went to sophomore Greg Hardin (Bellevue, Neb.) as he caught eight passes.
Goska’s lone touchdown pass went for 16 yards to sophomore Blair Townsend (Coon Rapids, Minn.), who caught a career high three passes for 38 yards. Townsend’s touchdown came after one of those turnovers and put UND ahead 21-7.
Lobato would make a game of it again before the half as his 48-yard strike to Dominic Gunn with two seconds left put the home team within a score, but the extra-point attempt by the Bears sailed wide.
Freshman Jer Garman (Marion, Iowa) rushed for a game-high 65 yards and sophomore Jake Miller (Bismarck, N.D.) added 54 on the ground as the UND running attack garnered 129 yards. Miller put UND on the board first with a three-yard rush in the opening quarter to give him six straight games with at least one touchdown.
The Sioux offense held the ball for more than 42 minutes in the contest and the Bears’ rushing attack mustered negative 16 yards on 16 carries.
UND returns home next Saturday to play Division II Sioux Falls at 1 p.m.
Game captains were seniors Dan Hendrickson (Minot, N.D.), Catlin Solum (Fargo, N.D.), Drew Daggett () and Brandon Quesenberry (Missoula, Mont.) … Zeb Miller’s 54-yard field goal was a career long and the second longest in the FCS this season … The Sioux won back-to-back road games for the first time since the 2007 season when that squad won its first five games away from Grand Forks … Sophomore Jake Miller scored a touchdown for the sixth-straight game … Miller now has 14 touchdowns on the season … Sophomore Blair Townsend had three catches for 38 yards and touchdown after coming into the game with two career catches for 14 yards.
Head Coach Chris Mussman:
On Zeb Miller’s game-winning field goal
“Those aren’t easy kicks to make, and we talked about it at the beginning of the year: we have to be 1 percent better in those kicks outside of 40 yards, and he was today. I go back to Cal Poly a year ago, where we missed a 40-some yarder to win the game, and we’re 1 percent better, because we hit a 53-yarder to ice the game for us.”
“We just thought at that point in the game we needed to give it a shot. We were having a tough time stopping their offense there late in the game. [Northern Colorado] had Walker getting loose all over the field on us. As long as [Miller] could get it over the line of scrimmage, I knew he’d have the distance to make the kick.”
On Northern Colorado
“I told everybody all along: ‘That’s the best 0-8 team in the country.’ Defensively, they did a good job; they had a good plan for us, and I knew they would. I knew what they were going to do, and they executed pretty well.”
On his team’s performance
“I thought we made the plays offensively when we needed to make the plays. Defensively, we had a tough time with [WR Patrick Walker]. He’s special. He could play for anybody at the FCS level and be effective. We found a way to win a game, and that’s all you’ve got to do.”
Placekicker Zeb Miller:
On defeating a Big Sky opponent
“I think this is big for our team because it’s our first Big Sky opponent we’ve played, so we see what we’re getting into next year. We get some motivation. We know we can play with people and our team has grown so much since last year.”
On his game-winning field goal
“Two or three different coaches came over to me and were like, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in position, you’ve got to forget about those two [missed] kicks and hit it between the pipes because we’re going to need a game-winner.’ They had complete confidence in me and put me out there, and I did what they expected me to do.
“I got a great snap and a great hold from my snapper and holder. The line blocked great, and I’ve got to have all those parts before it even gets to me. And then after I hit it, I heard a sound, so I imagine it maybe got tipped a little bit, so I was a little worried after that, but it somehow found its way in the pipes, and I was very, very excited.”
Quarterback Brent Goska:
On finding a way to win
“It just goes to show the maturity of our team and how much we have overcome since last year. Last year, we would’ve been the team that found a way to make more mistakes. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done.”
On Northern Colorado
“Give them credit - they fought hard. We knew coming in their record showed absolutely no indication of their talent level and how hard they played. They never gave up. You have to give them all the credit in the world.”
On Miller’s field goal
“I had no doubt [that he could make it]. He’s out there sometimes an hour before practice, kicking with the wind, against the wind, and when you’re out there in that North Dakota wind, you know you can kick.”
Defensive end Ross Brenneman (Omaha, Neb.):
On the importance of the win
“We’ve got to get back on that winning streak, and this is a big one. This is a Big Sky matchup, and I know this is an old [NCAA Division II] rivalry, and it’s great to rekindle that.”
– Go Sioux –