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Bulldogs excited to be Kansas bound

After the Minnesota Duluth football team lost its season opener at Southwest Minnesota State, the Bulldogs knew they would probably have to win out to make the NCAA Division II playoffs.The Bulldogs did just that, rattling off 10 straight victori...

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Minnesota Duluth defensive back Mitchell Johnson-Martin and his teammates react to the NCAA Division II announcement that the Bulldogs will play Emporia State in Kansas on Saturday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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After the Minnesota Duluth football team lost its season opener at Southwest Minnesota State, the Bulldogs knew they would probably have to win out to make the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Bulldogs did just that, rattling off 10 straight victories, and on Sunday they were rewarded.
UMD (10-1) is the No. 5 seed in Super Region Three and will play at No. 4 Emporia State (10-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Emporia, Kan. It is the 10th time the Bulldogs have qualified for the NCAA playoffs and eighth time in the past nine seasons, with the lone exception being last year.
“This is exactly what I wanted, to make the playoffs,” senior linebacker Beau Bates said. “That’s what I hoped for from the start, and now that we’re in, we’re going to make a run.”
UMD’s 10-game winning streak hasn’t been without some tense moments as five of those wins were by eight points or less.
Now the Bulldogs feel they’re prepared for anything,
“After that first game, we knew moving forward that every game was a playoff game for us, so that’s how we attacked it,” Bates said. “If we lost one, we were out of the playoffs. We’ve seen a lot of adversity this season, and that’s good, because that’s what you’re going to get in the playoffs.”
Defending national champion Northwest Missouri State (11-0) is the region’s No. 1 seed and will have a first-round bye. The Bearcats own a 26-game winning streak, with their last loss being at UMD in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The UMD-Emporia State winner plays the following week at Northwest Missouri.
Azusa Pacific (9-2) conceivably could have leapfrogged UMD in the region but lost to a tough Colorado Mesa team on Saturday. Azusa slid to the No. 7 seed and will play at No. 2 Sioux Falls (11-0), while No. 6 Central Missouri (9-2) is at No. 3 Harding (11-0).
UMD coach Curt Wiese serves on the region committee but said he had no idea how it would all shake out. In a blind vote, each committee member gives their top 10 to the national committee, which ultimately decides the playoff field.
“I didn’t know where we’d be at, absolutely not,” Wiese said. “It’s exciting to be back. For our seniors, the goal was not to be back in the Mineral Water Bowl, like last year. Our goal was to be here.”
While nothing with those playoff brackets is certain, the announcement that UMD would be playing at Emporia certainly wasn’t a surprise. Emporia’s only loss was to Northwest Missouri, and the Hornets had been fourth in the region rankings the past two weeks, one spot ahead of UMD.
UMD gathered on campus Sunday afternoon in Bohannon Hall to watch the selection show on ncaa.com.
“We figured we’d be at Emporia,” Wiese said. “All four teams ahead of us won last week, so our assumption was that we were going to stay right where we were at, but you never know.”
After the loss to Southwest Minnesota State, the Bulldogs’ next three wins were by three points apiece, but this isn’t the same team that barely survived a 52-49 win over a Concordia-St. Paul team that finished 2-7.
“We’ve come a long ways since Week 1 of the season,” UMD senior wide receiver/running back Beau Bofferding said. “I specifically remember saying after that loss, ‘Hey, we’ve got 10 weeks left. There’s a lot we can do with that.’ We’ve done what we needed to do, and we’re very fortunate and excited to be back in the playoffs. We’ve seen pretty much every situation you could see this season, and that says a lot about our football team, the way we bounce back.”
That included rallying from 27-14 halftime deficit to win 48-34 on Saturday at St. Cloud State, securing the Bulldogs’ trip to Emporia.
Bofferding laughed when being asked what he knew about Emporia, Kan.
“To say the least, not a lot,” he said. “I don’t know a lot about them, but I’ll definitely know a lot more as the week goes on. It’s a whole new level right now.”
Emporia State isn’t a complete stranger.
Bofferding was a freshman on the UMD team that beat Emporia State 55-13 at Malosky Stadium in the first round of the playoffs on Nov. 23, 2013. UMD quarterback Drew Bauer, now a senior, rushed 14 times for 173 yards and four touchdowns in that game.
“Preparation will start (Sunday night),” Wiese said. “The difference in the playoffs, when you don’t know who you play, you can’t work ahead on film. We don’t have anything prepped at this point. It will be a clean slate, starting now. Time to get to work.”

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Minnesota Duluth football offensive lineman Matt Catton (from left), linebacker Beau Reder and offensive lineman Connor Randall listen to the NCAA Division II Football Selection Show on Sunday afternoon. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@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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