After two come-from-behind wins, the stage is set for No. 2 UMD to meet top ranked Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival Minnesota State Mankato in the quarterfinals of the 2014 playoff tournament. As if last week’s 19-point, fourth quarter comeback victory over the 2013 champion Northwest Missouri State wasn’t dramatic enough, it took overtime for the Bulldogs to come out on top of Ouachita Baptist University. Playing with poise and determination, UMD made timely plays and took advantage of mistakes from their opposition. Looking ahead, they want more of the same.
“(For) all of the seniors on the team, this is our last go-round,” senior defensive back Daryl Brown said. “We’re willing to do anything to pick this team up. We want all these guys to have faith and understand that we’re gonna win every game whether we’re up or down.”
In the two back-and-forth contests, the outcome depended on late fourth quarter touchdown drives. Surprising to their playoff opponents — but not to those who have followed them all season — the Bulldogs were best when the pressure was on.
To eliminate the Northwest Missouri State, Drew Bauer led UMD on a 70-yard touchdown drive, using his legs for 39 rushing yards and the game-winning score in the 25-21 victory.
Finding their team in a similar scenario against Ouachita Baptist, the Bulldog offense drove 74 yards downfield in the final minutes, taking the lead on Zach Zweifel’s team-leading 48th reception. However, the touchdown came in overtime, when the roles were reversed. Zweifel connected with Bauer on a nine-yard touchdown pass to punch their ticket to the quarterfinals.
“We knew our guys were tired, and (that) we needed to make a play to win the game,” Curt Wiese, head coach, said. “I had my doubts late in the fourth quarter, but again our guys found a way to get it done.”
Just as the offense converted on big plays when needed, the Bulldog defense made crucial stops in both wins. From forcing a field goal in overtime against Ouachita, to a fourth down goal-line stand kept the Bulldogs in the game against Northwest Missouri State, the defense looks to have continued success in high-pressure situations.
Despite allowing season highs in rushing yards (281) and total yards (576) in the 48-45 win over Ouachita, the Bulldog defense never allowed UMD to trail by more than seven points.
Brown preserved a tie with a third quarter interception in the end zone. He forced and recovered a fumble in the win, and will be called upon along with Darion Fletcher to help contain MSU’s passing attack.
Like UMD, the Mavericks needed overtime to come out of the second round with a win. But that isn’t all they have in common — both are undefeated, and the teams share the 2014 overall NSIC title.
“We’re very similar football teams, both of us like to run the football, both of us have really good run defenses and perimeter games that are dangerous enough to beat you,” Wiese said. “This is, for all intents and purposes, a conference championship game.”
UMD and MSU average 290.1 and 257 rushing yards per game, respectively. Their offenses spread the football around, but always protect it. UMD has a plus 17-turnover margin, while MSU is close behind at 14.
Led by NSIC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Gordon, MSU’s defense has allowed an average of 12.5 points per game. The defensive end is No. 3 in the nation in sacks (16.5).
Minnesota State ranks No. 1 in the polls, but the Bulldogs, who rank No. 2, aren’t star struck.
“It doesn’t matter what number is in front of your name,” Brown said. “It’s all about how we play and how we prepare.”
The Bulldogs have not played in Mankato since 2006 and have never faced MSU in the playoffs before. Since falling 21-17 to MSU last season, UMD has only lost one game — a loss they avenged two weeks ago against Northwest Missouri State.
Opening kickoff is set for 12 pm in Mankato, and if their two previous games were any indication, this game is sure to be an exciting one.
QUARTERFINAL BY THE NUMBERS
15: the number of touchdown receptions by MSU’s Dorian Buford this season. If the Bulldog secondary can shut down their top target, they will force Mankato to go at UMD’s rushing defense, which is No. 8 in the nation.
73: percent, that is. UMD’s offense has been highly successful on fourth down conversions in 2014 (19/26), including going 2/3 against Ouachita Baptist. The Bulldogs have performed well under pressure and they need to keep this up against Mankato.
30: minutes. Both teams are ball hogs. UMD averages 34:53 in possession time per game; Mankato averages 32:53. Time of possession alone won’t decide the outcome, but in a matchup with two powerful offenses, whichever team eclipses the 30-minute mark and gets more chances on offense has an advantage.
7: Running back Logan Lauters is averaging seven yards per carry, and if he can approach this mark against a Mankato rushing defense that allows 105.4 yards per game, the Bulldog offense will difficult to stop — considering quarterback Drew Bauer has also been successful running the football.