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UMD football: Bulldogs to battle for first conference win

Minnesota Duluth football coach Bubba Schweigert has taken countless telephone calls and e-mails from former Bulldogs who plan to attend Saturday's homecoming game against Western Washington.

Minnesota Duluth football coach Bubba Schweigert has taken countless telephone calls and e-mails from former Bulldogs who plan to attend Saturday's homecoming game against Western Washington.

If even a small fraction of former UMD players turn out, Malosky Stadium should be packed for the 75th anniversary of Bulldogs football.

Schweigert hopes a little history helps inspire the Bulldogs, who have had 56 winning seasons but are off to a 1-3 mark this year, including 0-2 in the North Central Conference. Western Washington (1-2 overall, 0-2 NCC) is in a similar situation, having opened the season with a victory before suffering two straight conference losses.

"Our goal is to play a good football game and make those alumni proud. I hope the entire team feels the same way," Schweigert said. "There is a certain responsibility that comes with an anniversary like that. We have to lay it on the line and make sure everyone has a big day by winning one for the Bulldogs, by winning one for the boys who are back in town."

UMD entered the season with high expectations, and those expectations grew after the Bulldogs' opened with a 31-14 victory over defending Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference champion Bemidji State. But the win has been followed by three straight losses to teams either ranked or receiving votes in the American Football Coaches Association's NCAA Division II poll.

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What has frustrated the Bulldogs most is how they lost those games. UMD had a lead going into the fourth quarter of its 36-22 loss Sept. 15 against South Dakota, only to be run over by the Coyotes' ball-control offense. Last week against Central Washington, the Bulldogs trailed only 20-14 at halftime before giving up 16 points in a six-minute span of the third quarter.

"They ran a fumble in for a touchdown, and then all of the sudden it was a three-score game," Schweigert said. "It got away on us in a hurry, and that was unfortunate because we had really battled back after getting off to a poor start. We just have to be more consistent. We've shown we can be a really good football team, but then we have stretches where we make too many mistakes. We haven't put it all together for 60 minutes yet."

Western Washington can relate. The Vikings opened the season with a 28-21 victory over California-Davis, only to fall to No. 6 Nebraska-Omaha and No. 2 North Dakota.

Western Washington has shown it can be potent offensively, with sophomore running back Craig Garner rushing for a career-high 192 yards and tying a school record with four touchdowns last week in the 63-42 loss to North Dakota. Quarterback Adam Perry has been efficient, completing 60 percent of his passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns, with just two interceptions. On defense, end Ryan Conwell (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) and linebacker Shane Simmons (6-1, 225) have received interest from the National Football League.

While the Vikings have been scoring 27 points per game, they also have been giving up 43. So, the UMD alumni in the stands at Malosky Stadium on Saturday may see a high-scoring game.

"There have been games where you look at the numbers teams are putting up and think it will be a shootout, and then it ends up 10 to 6," said second-year Western Washington coach Robin Ross. "Then there are games where you have two teams with good defenses who all of the sudden can't stop anybody. Those things are decided week to week, but there's no question these two teams are capable of making some big plays offensively, so that should make for a heckuva football game on Saturday."

With their conference title and playoff hopes fading, both teams just want a conference win on Saturday.

"We're hungry. Real hungry," said UMD receiver Dennis Carter. "Everybody is at a point where they know it's now or never. If we don't show up now, we're not going to be successful, so everyone is trying to go out there with a positive attitude. We're just trying to shake those three losses away and play like it's the first game of the year."

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JON NOWACKI covers college sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at jnowacki@duluthnews.com .

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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