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Like all sports, football is cyclical. There were years when the offenses scored so much that it took a huge shift in philosophy to get the defenses established, and then the cycle swung that way, and a stout defense was the shortest way to a championship.
UMD coach Curt Wiese noticed the pendulum swinging back a year ago, and he and his Bulldogs had to adjust and play to engage eager opponents in a run-and-gun style of play that could defuse teams by outscoring them. After an opening loss, UMD won 10 straight games to take the Northern half of the Northern Sun conference. But of those victories, the first three were by three points each -- 34-31, 52-49, and 41-38.
They scored a lot of touchdowns, but they had to, because Winona State, Concordia of St. Paul, and Augustana all scored so much, the Bulldogs couldn’t contain them, so they had to outscore them.
That’s why last Thursday’s season opening 26-7 loss to Sioux Falls was such a jolt. Not only did it snap UMD’s 22-game home winning streak at Malosky Stadium, but it came in a manner we are just not used to seeing. Sioux Falls jumped ahead, UMD faltered, and Sioux Falls got farther ahead, then UMD faltered again.
Instead of roaring back to take command, or at least challenge, UMD went down with surprising ease. UMD received the opening kickoff, and immediately had an illegal procedure penalty. When they finally ran a play, rookie running back Ausin Sylvester fumbled at the 20 and Derek Landis scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for a 20-yard touchdown. Sixteen seconds into the opener and UMD trailed 7-0.
It was 17-0 before UMD got its touchdown, just before halftime, when Mike Rybarczyk, starting his first game at quarterback, flung a long, high pass on third and 10 from his 44. Jason Balts made a leaping reception and came down on the 1. Then it was Nolan Folkerts time., and the 6-4, 295-pound seniot tackle from Elgin, Minnesota, shifted into the backfield and plowed into the end zone to cut it to 17-7. That officially brought UMD’s offensive highlights to an end for the game.
The UND defense played a very strong game, strong enough to win. Sioux Falls running back Max Mickey gained 114 yards, but it took him 37 carries to do it. On the other side, Rybarczyk scrambled most of the night, and was sacked eight times for minus-45 yards. As a team, UMD rushed for only 29 yards, which meant the Bulldogs had a game total of minus-16 yards rushing.
Rybarczyk was 26-50 passing for 228 yards, with Balt catching nine of those for 117 yards.
Wiese was not happy afterward. There were various versions of what he said, but his primary comment was: “It’s frustrating when the adjustments we made on the sideline didn’t get made on the field.”
Wiese added that the defense was outstanding. “They put us in position to come back,” he said. “But we need better play at quarterback.”
If the game has changed, and creative offenses are poised to make the once-dominant defensive teams pay, the Bulldogs need to get it together at Upper Iowa. But the problem isn’t UMD’s alone.
Look at the Minnesota Vikings. Through four exhibition games, the first offensive unit scored three points, no touchdowns. Quarterback Sam Bradshaw has looked good, but the offensive line has been shaky, and the Vikings finished with a 30-9 loss to Miami. Now they get to open the regular season at home against the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees, and his new “back up” running back, Adrian Peterson.
The Saints defense looks like its back to its nasty form, and if you can base anything on exhibition play, you would have to favor the Saints in this one, unless the Vikings show that they can score a legitimate touchdown or two.
Then there are the Gophers. New coach P.J. Fleck decided to go with alternating quarterbacks, and the Gophers had to get a late touchdown to beat Buffalo 17-7. No, it wasn’t the Bills.
The Green Bay Packers are all set at quarterback, of course, with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. But the Packers open against Seattle, and the Seahawks appear to be making a return to Super Bowl contending form. I think the Seahawks defense will make life miserable for Rodgers in the opener, and Russell Wilson will pick apart the Packer defense.
We can all agree that the Chicago Bears are not likely to be a threat against Atlanta, and that leaves the Detroit Lions, where quarterback Matthew Stafford just became the highest-paid player in the league, playing at home against Arizona. Is Stafford finally ready to live up to his impressive potential? And if so, could the Lions make a serious run at overtaking the Vikings and the Packers?
Can’t say. But the Vikings need to find a way to start scoring and take part in the new-wave style of creative offense.
When it comes to finding its offense, we can sympathize most with Kurt Ramler, the St. Scholastica coach, who took his Saints down to open against his alma mater. That might have been OK in theory, but Ramler was a quarterback at St. John’s. And the Johnnies took no prisoners, crushing St. Scholastica 98-0. The game broke the NCAA Division III record for most points by any team in a game between two D-III teams. Thirteen different players scored.
The Saints, still a favorite in the UMAC, have their home opener this Saturday. The cold, cruel facts are that whoever wins the UMAC gets an automatic berth in the D-III playoffs, and very likely could wind up facing the MIAC champ...which very likely could be St. John’s.