The Bulldogs are the last remaining unbeaten in Division II, sitting at 14-0 entering Saturday's game. Delta State lost two games this season, but the Statesmen rolled through their playoff games, posting double-digit wins over North Alabama, Albany State (who was unbeaten and the region's top seed), and Shepherd. Delta State is the first unranked team to make the championship game in the event's 38-year history.
But that's motivation. That's the "no one gave us a chance" mentality come to life. UMD has been No. 1 in both national polls for most of the season, they earned the No. 1 seed in their region, and they haven't left home since Nov. 14.
I'm not going to bore you with analysis. I have only seen a chunk of one Delta State game. It looks like they have a balanced offense, and they field a small but quick and athletic defense. This game is going to come down to the play up front, plain and simple, and naturally turnovers. If UMD can dominate up front like they did against Augustana and for parts of the semifinal game against Northwest Missouri State, they are a clear favorite to win. If the Bulldogs get outworked by either of Delta State's lines -- offense or defense -- they will be in for a long day trying to make anything positive happen.
As we saw last week, turnovers matter a great deal. The team that takes better care of the football is normally in a position to win. The St. Cloud State playoff game (UMD was minus-four in turnover margin) was a great anomaly in that regard. You cough the ball up four times to none in a game, and there's a pretty good chance you'll end up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
Ahead of the game, the Duluth News Tribune takes a look at UMD's activities on Friday.
There was no crowd to greet the Bulldogs outside Willson (Elementary), but after the players wound their way through the halls to a darkened auditorium, a throng of 315 children screamed wildly and twirled glow sticks to illuminate the darkness.
The UMD offense took the stage behind 15 “cheerleaders” who earned the honor to be up there not because of their voices but because of their reading ability, the underlying message of the Bulldogs’ visit.
... “I was telling Coach Nielson that was even better than any of the pep rallies we get at our college,” said UMD offensive lineman Garth Heikkinen. “You could tell they were really looking forward to that and enjoyed it, but I think I got just as much out of that as they did.”
Everywhere you looked, there were Bulldog posters, some with the name and number of every individual UMD player.
That's the kind of stuff even college-age people tend to enjoy and remember. It's also a big part of why the Shoals area has hosted 25 NCAA Division II title games in a row. They've been able to make these events memorable for the participants, and the community gets something out of it, too.