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Bulldog defense stops Crookston

UMD football coach Bob Nielson had registered concern that his team was too dependent on big plays to win in its first two games. That concern had a different look Saturday night, when the offense not only didn't make many big plays, it didn't ma...

UMD football coach Bob Nielson had registered concern that his team was too dependent on big plays to win in its first two games. That concern had a different look Saturday night, when the offense not only didn't make many big plays, it didn't make many plays at all.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, their defense rose up for some huge plays, and Ricky Fritz converted two of them into third-quarter touchdowns to provide 3,642 fans at Griggs Field with a 13-9 victory over an aroused Minnesota-Crookston outfit. The victory gives UMD a 3-0 start for the first time since 1986, when the 'Dogs won their first five games and ran up a 6-0-2 start.
More important, the victory gave the Bulldogs a 1-0 start in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
"Our defensive staff and our defensive players did a great job," said Nielson. "They were well-prepared and made some things happen that gave us the chance to win the game. We need some more guys on offense to step up and play as well, but give Crookston credit. They did a great job defending us. This may not have been as exciting as our first two games, but it's a big win, and Crookston has a team that is going to win some games in this league."
Minnesota-Crookston in this case had to play with senior Ryan Zimmer making his first start at quarterback, because starter Justin Schreiber was out with mononucleosis. "Ryan is a transfer from Brainerd Community College," said Crookston coach Scott Oliver. "He backed up last year, and was beaten out by Schreiber this year, so this was his first start. It took him a while to get going, but then he did all right."
Zimmer ended up 10-of-27 for 125 yards. UMD's Fritz wasn't much more effective, going 12-of-29 for 149 yards, but he had those two touchdown passes.
After upending North Central Conference stalwarts Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State with an eye-popping array of spectacular plays, the Bulldogs may have figured on an easy time against Crookston. After stressing the need for a consistent ground attack in practice all week, the Bulldogs had little to show for it at halftime: 67 yards rushing on 21 attempts, no big plays, and no points. As in zero. Nothing.
Crookston running back Oscar Hernandez had 25 carries for 103 yards in the game, and 11 carries for 52 yards at halftime, when the Golden Eagles outrushed the 'Dogs with 81 yards on 17 tries and built a 6-0 lead on a pair of Sylvester field goals late in the second quarter.
The scoring started when Zimmer zeroed in to hit Mike Olsonawski for 21 yards, and sent Hernandez around right end for 24 yards. Hernandez cracked to the 3, but then the Bulldog defense stiffened, and Sylvester's kick made it 3-0 from 21 yards. On their next possession, Zimmer kept on a rollout left and gained 16 yards to the UMD 18, but Crookston couldn't get to the end zone, and Sylvester connected again, this time from 37 yards, for the 6-0 halftime lead.
It took big defensive plays to get the 'Dogs untracked in the third quarter. Hernandez fumbled, and Chris Markas caught the ball and returned it to the Crookston 10. It was suggested to Markas that he looked like a running back on his 37-yard return to the 9. "Yeah, right," he said. "I had nothing but green in front of me."
On first down, Fritz rolled right and passed to Steve Battaglia in the end zone. UMD went up 7-6 on the extra point.
Jerrard Reed's explosive return on the ensuing kickoff put Minnesota-Crookston in excellent position, but on first down from the 47, Zimmer threw a wounded duck up the right sideline, and UMD's Nathan Daigle intercepted it at the 22 for another big defensive play.
Fritz passed to freshman Tim Battaglia for 12 yards on third and 2, Erik Conner battled his way up the middle for 12 yards, and Fritz scrambled around right end for 8 more. On first down at the 34, Fritz unloaded, high and long up the right sideline, and kick-return ace Erik Hanson sprinted under it for a picturesque catch in the end zone.
"Ricky led me perfectly," said Hanson. "At halftime, coach told us just to relax and execute in the second half."
Hanson celebrated, briefly, after the touchdown, and was promptly penalized for it. That put the extra point try out of reach, and Fritz's 2-point pass went through Steve Battaglia's fingertips in the end zone, leaving the score 13-6.
The Golden Eagles had an opportunity to catch up when Sylvester punted to the UMD 2, late in the third quarter, and Craig Lockett recovered a fumble by Fritz at the Bulldog 9. On first and goal, Hernandez gained 4, but a pair of incomplete passes brought in Sylvester, who connected from 22 yards for his third field goal of the night to close it to 13-9.
The whole fourth quarter was left up to the Bulldog defense, with Kevin Westbrock's sack of Zimmer stopping one drive and forcing a 40-yard field goal that Sylvester hooked wide left. Running back Semaj Frazier-Billings gained 26 yards on a run later, but after the Golden Eagles got another first and goal from the 9, Frazier-Billings was hammered at the line of scrimmage, and UMD's Shaun Fisher recovered his fumble.
"They were pumped up to come in here and upset us," said senior defensive end Dan Schilling. "We had to find it within ourselves, and we came up with some big plays at the end."

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