I doubt anyone is really surprised to see the UMD football team in the regional final Saturday. They've been a staple in the Division II playoffs in recent years, and UMD has made four straight Super Region Three finals (wins over Grand Valley State and Augustana, with a loss to Grand Valley in 2009). This is the third straight year that the Super Region Three final will be contested at Malosky Stadium, an amazing accomplishment for a football program that hadn't tasted anything close to this level of success before its first title in 2008.
UMD, though, didn't follow the same path as prior years in getting to this point.
UMD rolled through the 2008 and 2010 championship years with matching 15-0 records. The Bulldogs were rarely challenged in the regular season, and outside of the 2008 road win over top-ranked Grand Valley State, really didn't pull any upsets to win the title. There was adversity in 2010, with injuries to Isaac Odim and Brad Foss and the playoff suspension of leading receiver D.J. Winfield. But UMD overcame it, beating Delta State for the national championship.
That late-season and playoff adversity was a harbinger of things to come for the football program. The 2011 season started well, with a road win over an amped-up Augustana team that was hell-bent on making up for last year's playoff loss in Duluth. The Bulldogs, though, fell to Wayne State (Nebraska) 7-0 in late September, marking their first NSIC loss since they rejoined the league when the North Central Conference died in 2007.
If that wasn't enough, UMD turned in its worst performance in years in losing to St. Cloud State 35-7 in October, marking UMD's first two-loss regular season since Bob Nielson returned as head coach. The Huskies were better than UMD in virtually every area, and the score really wasn't said to be deceiving.
However, the Bulldogs responded to both losses. After the Wayne game, UMD went to Bemidji and beat a good BSU squad. After they fell to St. Cloud State, UMD needed to win its remaining games to qualify for the Division II playoffs. The Bulldogs did that, including a solid win over Minnesota State in the season finale.
In the playoffs, UMD has shown its resiliency, its mental toughness, its mettle, whatever you want to call it. This might not be the most talented team Nielson has taken into the Division II playoffs, but they're tough and experienced, and they know how to win in the postseason.
Against Colorado State-Pueblo Saturday, we saw how tough this UMD team really is. Pueblo scored on its opening drive, then didn't score an offensive touchdown for the remainder of the first half. UMD's defense stiffened throughout the game, holding the potent Thunderwolves to just 224 yards, a season low.
The Bulldogs offense was content to grind things out, wearing down the smaller Pueblo front seven with a punishing ground game. Were it not for an errant snap that gave CSUP a touchdown right before halftime, there's a chance UMD could have won going away. Instead, the Bulldogs had to respond to that late touchdown, and they did on the opening drive of the third quarter, impressively going the length of the field for a go-ahead touchdown.
After a CSUP touchdown drive gave the Thunderwolves a 21-17 lead, UMD had to again respond to adversity. Quarterback Chase Vogler threw an interception in the end zone, giving CSUP the ball back after a long UMD drive that ended up empty. The defense came out -- desperately needing a stop -- and forced a three and out. After an Aaron Roth punt return touchdown was called back by a penalty, Vogler ripped off a 31-yard run that led to Brian Lucas' one-yard score to cap the scoring.
UMD might not be capable of overwhelming opponents, but Todd Strop's defense has developed into a very good group. They shut down MSU in the season finale, made the necessary stops late in the game against Saginaw Valley State, keeping the Cardinals from scoring a game-changing or game-winning touchdown on a couple occasions. But their best performance of the season may have come against Pueblo.
With Wayne State -- not the one from Nebraska, this one is from Michigan -- coming in on Saturday, look for more out of this defense. UMD isn't as potent offensively as in past years, so they're going to need it as the Bulldogs look to grind out three more wins and pick up what could end up being the most improbable of national championships.
It may be improbable to some, but it really shouldn't be surprising. Nielson's teams have been known for their toughness and resiliency through tough times, and this one may be the most impressive in that regard. Come playoff time, there is nothing at all wrong with a team leaning on its toughness and experience to win close games.
In fact, it's often the best way to win.