With rival St. Cloud State University out of the way, the path is clear for No. 4 UMD to push through the rest of the north Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference division play unscathed.The dominant offense and suffocating defensive play gave the Bulldogs the 44-21 victory Saturday. They showed no signs of letting up, though next week they face an opponent that is biting at their heels in the standings — second place Northern State (4-2). They have faced better, they have seen worse, but next week’s homecoming game is just another step for UMD.
“The fact that we don’t play any out of conference games (makes) every game matter for a conference race,” head coach Curt Wiese said. “This week is just as important as last week was, and we need to get better each week.”
With five games remaining, UMD will face opponents with a combined record of 9-21, making the second half of their season seem like a cakewalk. However, their losing records are skewed by having to play four games against strong south NSIC teams. The top three teams in that division — No. 3 Minnesota State, No. 20 Sioux Falls and Upper Iowa — all have undefeated records.
Saturday’s matchup at St. Cloud State University was UMD’s first game in St. Cloud since a 51-49 shootout loss in 2012. This year’s contest was one involving two teams with very different schedules. The Huskies have a 2-4 record, but their losses have come from the top three teams in the south NSIC. Including the loss against UMD, every loss the SCSU Huskies have this season is against an undefeated team.
On the other hand, UMD’s four victories against south NSIC opponents have come from the bottom four teams in the standings.
Despite owning a losing record, the Huskies put up a fight against the Bulldogs in the first half, going into the locker room with just a seven-point deficit. They would be overpowered by a Bulldog offense that finds success in any way they try to move the football.
Against St. Cloud, Drew Bauer led the team with 95 rushing yards and three touchdowns — twice through the air and once on a quarterback sneak. He divided 326 passing yards between eight different Bulldog receivers, proving the versatility of his offensive game.
“We are continuing to get healthy in our receiving core,” Wiese said. “As we get healthier, we have the opportunity to become more explosive around the perimeter, and Drew Bauer did a good job of getting those guys the football this afternoon.”
Facing a Northern State defense that has allowed 35.2 points per game this season, UMD should have similar success in the homecoming game this Saturday.
Northern State runs an offense that is not overwhelming, but they won’t give the ball away either. Like the Bulldogs, their turnover margin is positive, and on defense their secondary has already made six interceptions in their 2014 campaign.
In UMD’s homecoming game, the Bulldogs will, as always, focus on running the ball, especially with the talent in the Northern State secondary. And why shouldn’t they?
The Bulldogs average 341.6 yards per game on the ground, and their three main runners — Bauer, Sikorski and Lauters — have a combined 11 rushing touchdowns this season.
“You can’t be a one dimensional team,” Bauer said. “If the pass is working, I’ll keep going with the pass. If the run is working, we’ll keep going to the run.
“You’ve got to execute with both running and passing the football.”
Yet, UMD’s explosive offense should not overshadow the defense and special teams play that gives their offense the football. The Bulldogs forced two fumbles on special teams Saturday, while the defensive unit allowed 21 points over three quarters. No points were scored against the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter.
If UMD is to finish the season undefeated — which is not out of the question given their on-field success and future opponents — the special teams and defensive units need to maintain the consistent effort they have put forth throughout the first half of the season. By operating efficiently on these fronts the Bulldogs get more chances on offense, and with 34.4 points per game and 85 percent efficiency in the red zone, it is clear that Wiese’s offense has done well with those chances.
Northern State won’t be their biggest test this season, but it is the strongest team they have left on the schedule.
Kickoff for the homecoming game is at 1:05 p.m.
BY JIMMY GILLIGAN Statesman Correspondent