The win also delivered UC Davis its first winning season since 2006, improving its overall record to 6-4 and its league mark to 3-1. North Dakota, which was led by 77 rushing yards from Brent Goska and touchdown catches from Ryan Konrath and Marcus Tibesar, fell to 5-5 overall and 2-2 in the Great West.
UC Davis led 28-13 with 7 minutes, 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter after Denham hit Carter for an 8-yard touchdown strike. But North Dakota got back to within a score four minutes later when quarterback Jake Landry connected with Konrath from 21 yards, capping an 11-play, 71-yard drive.
The Aggies, operating out their version of the Wildcat formation, marched to the North Dakota 27 yard-line inside the final minute of the game but stalled on fourth down. Landry completed an 11-yard pass to Konrath to start a desperation final drive but linebacker Michael Healey forced a fumble two plays later which was recovered by defensive end Patrick Michelier, ending the threat with just five seconds left.
Carter, who moved within three catches of Tony Kays' school record 207 career catches, had nine catches for 96 yards, also catching a 15-yard TD pass for UC Davis' first score. Denham completed 25 of 37 passes for his 284 yards, tossing a long pass of 34 yards to Conor Kirkpatrick which resulted in a score.
Cornerback Kenneth Brown had a 21-yard interception return while linebacker Mike Morales had eight tackles to help lead the defense.
"I'm just proud of everyone, and the seniors in particular," said Aggie coach Bob Biggs. "They've been through some rough times the last couple of years. They've endured some losing seasons and they're just very, very committed."
UC Davis, which beat North Dakota at home for the second straight year, took a 14-0 lead after Carter's first touchdown with 4:32 left in the first quarter finished off a 10-play drive, and Kirkpatrick's 34-yard touchdown grab early in the second quarter culminated a quick 7-play, 75-yard drive that took just over two minutes.
The Aggie defense, meanwhile, took early control of the game, forcing three-and-outs totalling just seven yards on each of North Dakota's three possessions in the first quarter. UND got onto the scoreboard on its fourth drive, moving 80 yards on 10 plays to get a short 1-yard pass from Goska to Tibesar with 9:06 left in the half.
Neither team was able to generate much offense in the first half with North Dakota picking up just 113 total yards and the Aggies - who punted four times before halftime - garnering just 108. A pair of field goals from UND's Brandon Hellevang - including a 52-yarder - helped the Fighting Sioux get to within 14-13 late in the third quarter, but UC Davis turned the tide by marching 71 yards on 10 plays to take a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter when Josh Reese ran in from a yard.
Brown's interception, which he returned to the UND 24, led to the final Aggie score and a 28-13 lead. Denham hit three straight passes on that drive, capped by his TD toss to Carter. Landry then connected on five passes, including the TD pass to Konrath, to make it 28-20 and set up the finish.
The Aggie defense held North Dakota to 265 total yards, including just 139 through the air while picking up a pair of turnovers. Morales had two solo stops among his eight total tackles while fellow linebackers Brock Butler and Healey each had five tackles. Michelier and defensive back Kevyn Lewis shared a two-yard sack.
"The defense has played great," said Biggs. "They're just scrappy (and) have a lot of guys contributing. Morales, of course, (is having) a great year, but there's a lot of people contributing and they have a lot of athleticism on defense. That's what's noticeable when you watch, that we can run around and there's a lot of people getting to the ball."
Goska rushed for 77 yards and passed for 32 while Landry completed 13 of 24 pases for 107 yards. Konrath and Ismael Bamba each caught five passes for 49 and 44 yards, respectively. Hellevang also had a 37-yard field goal in addition to his long one of 52.
The championship was also the first outright title for UC Davis since 1992 when it captured the former America West Conference banner and the 30th league championship title overall.
UC Davis returns to the field next Saturday when it visits rival Sacramento State in the annual Causeway Classic. Kickoff at Hornet Stadium is 2:05 p.m.