The Bulldogs are at it Saturday night in Fayette, about an hour's drive from here in Waterloo, taking on Upper Iowa in a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference game.
I've called 293 UMD men's hockey games, a couple UMD women's hockey games, and a slew of high school hockey games since the last time I threw on a headset and called a football game.
I'm equal parts excited and nervous ahead of Saturday, largely hopeful I won't sound like a bumbling idiot who can't get his sports terminology straight.
The Bulldogs beat Sioux Falls 32-7 last week, but Upper Iowa presents challenges that Sioux Falls did not, and you're making a serious mistake if all you do is look at the Peacocks' record from last season (2-9) and just shrug this game off as an easy UMD win. There are challenges afoot for the Bulldogs Saturday, and many of them surround the UIU offense.
The Peacocks run a fast-paced offense that works a lot without a huddle. It's an offense that clicked in a few games last season, rolling up over 40 points in an incredible 106 total plays against Sioux Falls. UIU also topped 90 plays in a game against Minnesota State-Moorhead. For the season in 2012, Upper Iowa averaged nearly 75 plays per game.
"If you let them get a couple first downs, they're a little tougher to defend," veteran defensive coordinator John Steger told me this week. "Plus they'll wear you out a little bit because you can't substitute, and we can't get some of our packages on the field."
"They're a high pace, up-tempo offense," head coach Curt Wiese said. "Definitely a concern is making sure our defense is aligned, that we can slow their tempo offensively."
UIU likes to run out of one-back sets with three wide receivers and an H-back/tight end type on the field. The Peacocks will also spread the field with four and five wide receivers, and they'll let their junior quarterback, Cole Jaeschke, sling the rock around.
It was nearly a recipe for upsets last year, but UIU couldn't finish close games with teams like Southwest, Winona State, Wayne State, or Sioux Falls. The Peacocks gave up late scores to lose to Wayne (field goal with 2:14 left), Southwest (TD with :25 left), and Bemidji State (TD with :40 left). They had chances against Winona and Sioux Falls, but couldn't get the job done or make the key stop.
"I think that's a message to our kids," Wiese said. "Upper Iowa's a team that can sneak up and beat you."
Jaeschke threw five scoring passes in last week's win over Minnesota Crookston, a game where about all that went wrong for Upper Iowa was a couple missed field goals from close range and two botched extra points.
UIU outgained Crookston 565-61 and was never threatened. That won't happen this week.
As good as the offense is for the Peacocks, it's had problems staying on the field. And their defense has struggled to get off of it.
Last year, Upper Iowa averaged barely 26:30 of possession per game. Contrast that with a UMD team that may have run fewer plays per game (70.8 compared to UIU's 74.6), but one that averaged holding the ball for over 33 minutes per game. There were a few games last year where the Peacocks either didn't hit or barely hit 20 minutes of possession. That's a recipe for getting worn out on the other side of the ball when you're playing a team like UMD.
The Bulldogs are content to make stops defensively, then let redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Bauer and sophomore transfer Eric Kline lead the team on long drives as the big heavies in front lean on an Upper Iowa front that isn't blessed with a ton of size or depth.
Both quarterbacks played in the USF win last week, and Wiese said both will play again.
"Overall, thought Drew played extremely well, was confident on the field," Wiese said. He went on to add he thought Kline led "the most important drive of the game. Made a fourth down pass and a third down pass. Played composed."
The Bulldogs got great line play last week, despite starting two freshmen on the offensive front. Left tackle Peter Bateman could quickly become a cornerstone player for a program that churns out all-conference linemen the way Penn State churned out linebackers back in the day. No one thought it was going to be easy to replace a player of Jake Bscherer's caliber, but Bateman got off to a great start in the opener.
When you consider that left guard Andrew Muer is already an all-league and potential All-America player, as is stalwart right tackle Tom Olson, you can see why there's so much optimism about the offensive line. Center Grant Schnobrich is out this week, so junior Andrew Pattock will start.
UMD's other line, the defensive one, was outstanding last week. They routinely got pressure rushing just three, which puts a smile on Steger's face.
"That allows us to do a lot of things," he noted. "When we get them in second and long and third and long, we can pressure people."
That's a big key on Saturday. If the defense can continue to stop the run like it did against the Cougars (Sioux Falls ran for a whole 11 yards all night), it'll force Jaeschke to go to five-step drops and throw the ball downfield. His career accuracy numbers aren't eye-popping, so getting him away from the bubble screens and quick passes that dominate this offense would be a win for the Bulldogs.
One way to do that, as Steger and Wiese both pointed out, is to get the offense off schedule. That means get them into second and long and third and long. It negates the running game, ruins any hopes of gaining traction with play-action, and a defense like the one Steger runs here is going to feast on an offense that is rendered basically one-dimensional.
I expect that UIU will have a good crowd and a pumped-up team for Saturday. It's the home opener, and they'll pull out all the stops to try to get the upset win that eluded them last year.
In the end, if the Bulldogs execute as capable on both sides of the ball, that upset will continue to elude the Peacocks.
Pregame on The Fan 1490 and the Bulldog Sports Radio Network is set for 5:30 Saturday, with kickoff around 6. New starting this weekend: Fans can listen to the live stream on their smart phones. Once the game stream is activated (around 5:20pm), you can use your phone browser, log on to www.fan1490.com, and find the box on the right side that says "Listen to UMD Football."
(That image rotates with other local sports we carry, but it all routes to the same webpage, which is this one.)
Tap that link, and it'll take you to our stream menu. Find the UMD game, tap the "Watch/Listen Live" icon, and you're good to go. We tested this new toy on an iPhone and an Android phone, and it worked just fine.