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If you’ve got the chance to head on down to Mankato to watch the Division 2 Super Region Three football final Saturday, plan on getting there early and staying late, because we can be pretty sure it will be a great game, and we can be pretty sure that the UMD Bulldogs will make a spectacle of themselves.
If they can beat you with straight ahead rushing, fine; if they can’t, they might resort to trickery. Whatever it takes. Zach Zweifel, who caught what should have been the winning touchdown pass from Drew Bauer in the last minute of regulation, wound up throwing the winning touchdown pass to Bauer in overtime for a stunning 48-45 victory over Ouachita Baptist, to earn the right to take on Minnesota State-Mankato in the region final.
All season long, it’s been difficult to get a handle on just how good these Bulldogs are. They don’t seem to be as overwhelming as some recent UMD teams have been, but all they seem to do is find a way to win. Sometimes they do it routinely, but usually they seem to pull rabbits out of hats to win by magic. Or at least sleight of hand. We also know they have the same indomitable spirit, that unquenchable fire, as their second-year coach, Curt Wiese.
It has been most obvious once the playoffs started. The Bulldogs were a perfect 11-0 to win the Northern half of the Northern Sun Conference, while Minnesota State-Mankato was winning the Southern half at 10-0. In their first playoff game, the Bulldogs shrugged off the insult of being dropped to fourth seed in the regional, while being No. 2 ranked in the nation, and stormed back from a 21-6 deficit to score 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to extinguish the hopes of defending NCAA D-2 champ Northwest Missouri State 25-21.
Hard to imagine outdoing that, but the Bulldogs managed last Saturday, when they had to go on the road to face No. 1 seed Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas. UMD scored what seemed to be the winning touchdown when sophomore quarterback Bauer hit senior wide receiver Zweifel with an 11-yard TD pass with 45 seconds remaining, for a 42-39 lead. Trouble was, by then, both defenses were worn out from battling furiously in 70-degree heat, and neither side could stop the other.
Ouachita Baptist came right back down the field, and when UMD summoned up all its energy for one final stand to avoid giving up a game-breaking touchdown, Ouachita Baptist tied it 42-all with a field goal with only 3 seconds left.
“That’s as exhausted as I’ve ever seen our team,” said Wiese. “I thought our Northwest Missouri State game was as wild as you could get, but this was wilder. You had two explosive offenses and two extremely tired defenses out there. In overtime, we gave them the ball first. Our defense came up big, and they had to settle for a field goal.”
Trailing 45-42, UMD got its turn with the ball -- which is what makes college overtimes so much fairer than NFL overtimes. It was up to Logan Lauters to hammer his way to move the Bulldogs into position. Lauters wound up carrying for three first-half touchdowns and 161 yards. It was second down at the Ouachita 9 when Wiese and his staff decided to go for it all.
With Bauer having already hit Zweifel and Aaron Roth for touchdowns amid a 293-yard passing performance, and Lauters and Bo Bofferding available, the Bulldogs set up in an unusual formation. Zweifel pulled back and went in motion, left to right. Bauer handed the ball off and it looked like a tricky-enough end around sweep to the right. But Zweifel didn’t turn the corner and try to get to the end zone.
Instead, he spun around and fired a 9-yard pass to Bauer, the quarterback, who was in the end zone for the decisive touchdown.
“I’m not sure Zach had ever even tried it in practice,” said Wiese. “Drew leaked out to the weak side, and Ouachita defended him well. Their guy picked him up and covered him, but Zach pulled up and threw a perfect pass.”
Wiese had used a bucketful of trick plays to win during the season. It was the second time he called for a receiver to throw a surprise pass back to Bauer, but the first time Zweifel got the call.
So now, at 13-0, it’s off to Mankato, which is 12-0. This Saturday’s game will be a testimony to how good the Northern Sun has become in football, with two conference rivals, who don’t play each other because they’re in different divisions, meeting in a climactic game to see which one will advance to the national semifinals.
It might be just a good, hard-hitting, well-played game. But don’t bet on it.
UMD Still Seeks Hockey Respect Against CC
It seemed like break-time for the UMD men’s hockey team last weekend, but it really was only a weekend off. Before the Bulldogs take their holiday break -- the traditional midpoint of the college hockey season -- they will return to AMSOIL Arena to face Colorado College.
The CC Tigers have been struggling through the early going in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which continues to conclusively prove it is the best league in the nation. The league is so tough, it is particularly difficult for a team like CC to rebuild, and this weekend will be no time for the Bulldogs to lift on the throttle.
Go back over their most recent games, and you realize UMD split at Nebraska-Omaha, rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 in the first game. Before that, a sweet sweep of home-and-home games against Minnesota, which was No. 1 in the nation. And before that, the Bulldogs had gone down to St. Cloud and swept two impressive games from the St. Cloud State Huskies. Those victories had given UMD a nation’s best six-game winning streak. They had split at home with Miami of Ohio and Denver -- two more impressive teams -- to ignite that surge, after earlier splitting a home-and-home series against MSU-Mankato, a top WCHA contender.
At 5-3 in the NCHC and 9-5 overall, nobody still seems to be aware of how good the Bulldogs have performed, against such tough opponents. Consider the current national rankings: 1. North Dakota, 2. Minnesota State-Mankato, 3. Boston University, 4.Miami of Ohio, 5. Michigan Tech, 6. Minnesota, 7. Massachusetts-Lowell, 8. UMD, 9. Harvard, 10. Denver.
For what it’s worth, Nebraska-Omaha is No. 12, and St. Cloud State has been dropped out of the top 20, slipping to 21st. That means six of the eight NCHC teams are among the top 21, or the top 20 and the first “teams receiving votes.” By comparison, the WCHA has two in the top five (Mankato and Tech) and three in the top 21, while the Big Ten has Minnesota -- and nobody else. The Gophers are good\, but it’s a heavy load to have to carry the weight of the rest of the conference.
UMD split with MSU-Mankato, erupting for a 6-2 victory at Mankato; the Bulldogs split with Miami, and swept two from Minnesota, making them 4-2 against teams rated higher than their eighth slot. They also split with Denver and UNO, and swept St. Cloud State, compiling a 7-3 ledger against teams among the top 21 on the rating list. Nobody has had a tougher schedule.
After CC comes to town, the Bulldogs go to Michigan Tech, which previously had earned the No. 1 spot in the rankings. Then it will be time for the holiday break.
Tucker Hibbert of Pelican Rapids put on another show at the 23rd Duluth AMSOIL Pro SnoCross races on the top of Spirit Mountain last weekend, moving the defending series champion to within three of 100 career victories.
Watching these high-tech sleds fly around the course carved into something resembling an oval on the area right below the chalet makes you realize how difficult it is to win in any of the various classes, from the kids age-groupings, to women’s, novice, Pro-Lite, and the top Pro Open class.
And while Hibbert and his Arctic Cat can dominate from the start, or falter and have to charge through the field, he can do it. He used both techniques to win the two final features in Pro Open.
The series moves on now, touching down everywhere from New York to South Dakota, with one of the other big events coming at Canterbury Park in Shakopee. But the thought persists that the Duluth event is such a classic it not only deserves to be the schedule’s kickoff race, but it should have another one. NASCAR does it, so why shouldn’t the snowmobile racers -- who know Northern Minnesota is true snowmobile country - come back for what might be a climactic race later in the season?
Arctic Cat is based in Thief River Falls, and Polaris is made in Roseau, and SkiDoo, coming from Quebec, is the only other true competitor. But riders are attracted from all over the cold-weather world -- Norway and Sweden, as well as Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Mostly Minnesota. Snowmobiles belong here, and the Spirit Mountain circuit, with all its jumps and moguls and spectacular viewing area, overlooking the St. Louis River basin, is perfect.
John Gilbert has been writing sports for over 30 years. Formerly with the Star Tribune and WCCO. He currently hosts a daily radio show on KDAL AM.