GREELEY, Colo. (GoThunderWolves.com - Sept. 7, 2013) - For the past six years, CSU-Pueblo football coaches have historically lost some in-state recruiting battles with Division I Northern Colorado.
Saturday, the recruiting pitch just became a bit easier.
In the ThunderWolves' first ever game against an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision school, the Pack answered the call, parlaying a 28-point second quarter into a halftime lead and eventually a 41-36 victory over the Bears.
In what is arguably the biggest win in program history, CSU-Pueblo took the field with a roster of unproven freshman, sophomores and transfers after the 2012 team was gutted by graduation, but Saturday's performance showed that the 2013 edition of the ThunderWolves should get along just fine.
Early on, though, the Pack was the exact opposite of fine, looking like it would get rolled up at the hands of more experienced Bears. Northern Colorado went up 16-0 midway through the second quarter after a few Pack punts and an interception by new Pack quarterback Chris Bonner (Jr., San Diego, Calif.).
Reeling from the deficit, CSU-Pueblo did what good teams do - circle the wagons - and quickly rallied thanks to a big play.
Starting at their own 25-yard-line, Bonner recorded his first touchdown pass as a ThunderWolf after connecting with Paul Browning (Jr., Widefield, Colo.) on a 58-yard score, cutting the deficit to 16-7.
On the next drive, another Northern Colorado drive seemed on the road to a score, but Bear quarterback Seth Lobato was picked off by Stephan Dickens (Jr., Aurora, Colo.), playing in his first game since 2011 after missing 2012 with an injury, returning the interception 80 yards for a score, and suddenly, the Pack was within two, 16-14.
Both teams would score again, and the ThunderWolves, trailing 23-21 with 1:43 remaining, marched 84 yards in 13 plays, capping the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to running back Cameron McDondle (So., Littleton, Colo.) to take a 28-23 lead into halftime - and with it, control of the game.
The Bears would re-take the lead after a 7-play, 80-yard drive to go up 29-28, but the ThunderWolves would again break Northern Colorado's back with a defensive score as LaRon Tarkington (RFr., Phoenix, Ariz.) returned an interception 66 yards for a score to put the Pack up 34-29.
The ThunderWolves' fortunes improved even further when it went on a 70-yard scoring drive, capped by a 2-yard touchdown plunge by McDondle with 8:13 left in the game to take a 41-29 lead.
After UNC got within a score after a 1:31 touchdown drive, culiminating in a 16-yard rush by Tromaine Dennis, CSU-Pueblo was forced to punt, giving the Bears the ball at their own 39-yard line with 5:04 remaining, setting up an exciting finish.
As was the case on the Bears' previous scoring drive, in which an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Mike Pennel (Sr., Aurora, Colo.) lengthened the drive and turned into a UNC score, a pass interference call kept a Bear drive alive.
But after giving the Bears a 1st-and-10 at the ThunderWolves' 25-yard-line, the Pack held, culminating in a vindication sack by Pennel on third down that put UNC in a 4th-and-18 situation on the 33-yard-line. The ensuing incomplete pass sealed the Pack win.
"It was a total team effort," CSU-Pueblo head coach John Wristen said of the win. "We made some breaks, Tarkington making [interception return for a touchdown] was huge, and it was just a great team win."
Wristen said that even when the Pack was trailing 16-0, there was never doubt on the sideline.
"We never thought we couldn't do it," Wristen said. "We were able to get some things going and get some momentum, and there was a snowball effect. It is just a heck of a victory for us."
The win marks yet another Colorado school that has succumbed to CSU-Pueblo over the past two seasons, with only Football Bowl Subdivision schools Air Force, Colorado and Colorado State not losing to the Pack. And those are schools that will never play CSU-Pueblo anyway.
"This win validates who we are," Wristen said. "We are here to play in the state of Colorado. That's what we're about. I'm proud of this program and proud of the City of Pueblo."
CSU-Pueblo is hoping that Saturday's win is just the opening act for another marquee matchup next weekend, when the ThunderWolves travel to Dallas to face Angelo State at AT&T Stadium (formerly Cowboys Stadium) in the Pack's first ever game in a National Football League stadium.