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College football: UMD fends off Dragons for homecoming victory

Senior captain Zach Ojile scores career-high three touchdowns to help Bulldogs overcome two blocked punts.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth running back Chamere Thomas (2) carries the ball against Joey Hughes (25) of Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — As the homecoming crowd began shuffling out and the sun peeked through the clouds, Minnesota Duluth football players laughed and smiled and posed for pictures Saturday as they chatted with family and friends at Malosky Stadium.

Bulldogs senior Zach Ojile, meanwhile, already sounded like he was ready to walk across the street to the Sports and Health Center and pump some iron, review film or have an extra practice session.

That’s why Ojile has been a captain the past two years. This is a serious football player, and a pretty darn good one, too.

Ojile scored a career-high three touchdowns — two via the run and a third, the game-winner, via the pass — as UMD held off Minnesota State Moorhead for a 36-28 victory in their NSIC North Division opener before 3,686.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth quarterback Kyle Walljasper (12) carries the ball against Josiah Behm (47) of Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“There are certainly a lot of things we can clean up as a team, offensively, defensively and on special teams,” said Ojile, a rugged yet agile 6-foot-2, 238-pound fullback/tight end. “You only get so many opportunities to win, so when you do win, you’ve got to be happy with it, you’ve got to celebrate it, but we’ve got a lot to clean up next week.”

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Moorhead was down 22-0 early in the second quarter, 22-7 at halftime and 29-7 after three quarters but got back in it with a 21-point fourth quarter.

Quarterback Jack Strand threw a dart over the middle to Ryan Bieberdorf for a 17-yard touchdown to pull the Dragons to within a touchdown at 29-22 with 13:58 remaining.

UMD answered with one of its best drives of the season, a methodical 11-play, 60-yard possession that took 6:32 off the clock.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth running back Chamere Thomas (2) carries the ball against Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Ojile hauled in a 5-yard touchdown toss from senior quarterback Garrett Olson to cap the drive with 7:19 remaining, giving the Bulldogs a 36-22 lead.

“That was a huge drive in the fourth quarter because we had felt the momentum shift,” Ojile said. “We just had to stick to our game plan, stick to our plays. Garrett was going to put us in the right run checks, so we just had to go out and execute the play.”

Moorhead’s next drive stalled out and the Bulldogs (3-2) took over on downs. Up 36-22, that seemed to be the end of it but the Dragons (1-4) certainly didn’t go away in this one.

On UMD’s ensuing punt, Kolby Vander Wal blocked Logan Kobus’ attempt — the second blocked Bulldogs punt of the game — and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown to bring Moorhead to within a touchdown and two-point conversion at 36-28 with 1:41 remaining.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth running back Daniel Mitchell (23) carries the ball against Mike McClanahan (7) of Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fortunately for UMD, the onside kick was unsuccessful and the Bulldogs ran the clock out.

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Strand, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound true freshman from Bloomer, Wisconsin, is certainly a player Moorhead can build around. He was 30-for-40 passing for 340 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. His favorite target was Gage Florence, who had a crazy 16 receptions for 173 yards and a touchdown. That helped compensate for the Dragons' nonexistent running game, with generated minus-43 yards on 14 attempts.

“I’m proud of the snappiness these guys have got. They’re gritty,” Moorhead coach Steve Laqua said. “We could have folded a lot of times but hung in there, but hanging in there wasn’t enough to win obviously. That’s a good football team.

“It was a poor start by us, and a fast start by them, maybe a combination. Obviously on homecoming they came out firing on all cylinders. They knocked us to the mat, but we got back up. We got back up and we stayed in it.”

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth wide receiver Byron Bynum (1) is upended by Matthew Oh-Slack (20) of Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

With an 18-mph wind, it certainly wasn’t the easiest day for kicking the football but the Bulldogs will certainly want to shore up some things on special teams in terms of protections.

“We’ll take a win,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “Every game regardless of outcome you can learn from good and bad. Today there were plenty of undisciplined plays that we left on the field in all three phases of the game, so we have some work to do this week.”

Senior Wade Sullivan led UMD with 17 carries for 95 yards and also had a halfback touchdown toss as this game featured plenty of trickery from both teams.

Olson was 11-for-16 passing for 118 yards and a pair of scores, with Ojile leading the way with five receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown to go with his three carries for 10 yards and two scores.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth running back Wade Sullivan (26) carries the ball against James Eggert (40) of Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

At times in the fourth quarter there was that uneasy feeling like what happened against Bemidji State last year, where the Beavers rallied from down 21-7 to beat UMD for the first time in Duluth since World War II.

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Junior linebacker Andrew Klopp, who led UMD with seven tackles, with two for loss including a quarterback sack, helped make sure something like that didn’t happen again.

“You have to hand it to Moorhead,” Wiese said. “They kept themselves in it by beating us on special teams and making big plays on offense.”

Now, it’s time to get back to work for Ojile and Co.

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth quarterback Kyle Walljasper (12) carries the ball against Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Zach’s attitude isn’t unlike that of our team,” Wiese said. “We have high expectations, and the discipline has to start today.”

Minnesota Duluth made the NCAA Division II playoffs last year with two regular-season losses and is confident it would get in again if it wins out.

“For sure, but we don’t want to look too far down the road,” Ojile said. “We know we’ve got Mary coming in here next week and that’s all our focus is, just the next opponent and the next game we’re playing in. We’ve got to have a good week of practice. I’m chomping at the bit already.”

College football players playing in outdoor stadium cloudy day
Minnesota Duluth running back Chamere Thomas (2) carries the ball against Minnesota State Moorhead at Malosky Field on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

MS Moorhead 0-7-0-21—28

Minnesota Duluth 7-15-7-7—36

First Quarter

UMD — Zach Ojile 7 run (Curt Cox kick), 5:54

UMD — Sam Pitz 2 pass from Wade Sullivan (Cox kick), 14:55

Second Quarter

UMD — Ojile 4 run (Noah Skifton run), 9:39

MSM — Brady Perryman 60 pass from Jack Strand (Ryan Riedel kick), 9:24

Third Quarter

UMD — Byron Bynum 27 pass from Garrett Olson (Cox kick), :53

Fourth Quarter

MSM — Gage Florence 61 pass from Strand (Ryan Bieberdorf pass from Strand)

MSM — Bieberdorf 17 pass from Strand (Riedel kick), 13:58

UMD — Ojile 5 pass from Olson (Cox kick), 7:19

MSM — Kolby Vander Wal 47 blocked punt return (pass failed), 1:41

MSM UMD

First downs................................15 21

Rushes-yards.......................14-(-36) 54-264

Passing yards ..........................340 128

Comp-Att-Int.......................30-40-1 13-18-0

Kick returns-yards...................4-35 4-92

Punts-avg.............................4-26.2 5-24.0

Fumbles-lost..............................0-0 3-1

Time of possession................20:38 39:22

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — MSM, Hayden Bell 5-7, Luke Imdieke 4-0, Strand 5-(-43). UMD, Sullivan 17-95, Daniel Mitchell 8-61, Chamere Thomas 4-28, Kyle Walljasper 5-24, Levon Bellemy 3-22, Bynum 2-21, Zach Ojile 3-10, Olson 9-9, Team 3-(-6).

PASSING — MSM, Strand 30-40-3-340. UMD, Olson 11-16-2-118, Logan Kobus 1-1-0-8, Sullivan 1-1-1-2.

RECEIVING — MSM, Florence 16-173, Perryman 6-93, Bieberdorf 4-57, Jack Antonson 1-10, Jack Imdieke 2-7. UMD, Ojile 5-46, Bynum 4-43, DaShaun Ames 1-27, Brad Dati 1-8, Pitz 1-2, Bellemy 1-2.

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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