Sacramento State stings North Dakota on the road in FCS playoffs behind QB Kaiden Bennett

The first man Andy Thompson greeted when this one was over was Kaiden Bennett.

The first-year Sacramento State football coach gave a quick helmet pat, telling his junior quarterback: “Nice job!”

Bennett’s passing, running and leadership led the Hornets past North Dakota 42-35 on Saturday afternoon in Grand Forks in an NCAA Division I FCS playoff opener, the program’s first-ever road win in the FCS playoffs.

Bennett of Folsom High School roots trotted off the Alerus Center turf with the ball tucked under his arm, making his way to the stands to greet family and friends who made the trip to the Great Plains.

Bennett completed 17 of 22 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown to Andrew Grover. He also rushed 13 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 4-yard score behind a block from All-American tight end Marshel Martin. The Hornets did not have any turnovers or commit any penalties, a program first, and moved to 8-4 and advanced to the quarterfinals next Saturday at No. 3 South Dakota, which had a first-round bye.

Sacramento State is 8-1 in games following a loss since 2019, when the Hornets won the first of three Big Sky championships.

“Kaiden was outstanding,” Thompson said on the ESPN broadcast. “He did a great job. The offensive line did a nice job, and it was a great job by our offensive staff. It’s a tough place to play here, great tradition. We’re very happy to walk out of here with a win. I was proud of our defense. We made some stops. It’s playoff football. Win and you get to advance. I’m proud. All year, we’ve been resilient. We haven’t lost two games in a row all year. Keep it rolling.”

Sacramento State is in the FCS playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, a program first, and the Hornets won their third game in Alerus Center since 2013. Those previous games were Big Sky Conference games. North Dakota is now a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which advanced six teams to the FCS playoffs.

North Dakota was 6-0 at home this season, had won 25 of its last 27 in the venue and were 11-1 all-time in home playoff games.

Marcus Fulcher rushed for 41 yards and a touchdown for Sacramento State, which ran the ball 41 times for 244 yards. Two-time All-Big Sky linebacker Armon Bailey led the Hornets with eight tackles and 1 ½ sacks as the team registered four sacks against North Dakota (7-5).

After Bennett’s touchdown run made it 42-35, the Hornets forced the Fighting Hawks to punt with 2:45 remaining. Sacramento State ran out the clock to secure the win.

Bennett has had big moments and some struggles this season. He found his groove again in the second half of last week’s Causeway Classic at UC Davis with three touchdown passes. He got the start at North Dakota and looked the part of a veteran.

At one point in the first half, Bennett was 10-of-11 passing and with eight carries for 105 yards while steering the Hornets to four consecutive touchdown drives for a 28-14 lead.

“We found a groove,” Bennett said. “Another week of football. I love it.”

Sacramento State last played a road playoff game in 1988, losing an NCAA Division II semifinal at North Dakota State. The Hornets hosted playoff games as a higher seed each of the past three seasons.