Call it coaching, call it practice time, but the Minnesota Duluth football team showed dramatic improvement last season, going from a pair of hard-fought wins to start to season all the way to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.

The Bulldogs won’t have that luxury this season. They need to be great right away, as third-ranked UMD takes on top-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato in the NSIC season opener at 6 p.m. today in Mankato, Minn.

“We have to put our best foot forward off the bat,” UMD senior running back Logan Lauters said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The same teams met in last year’s national quarterfinals, with Minnesota State using a huge second half to beat the Bulldogs 44-17. The Mavericks advanced to the national title game, falling 13-0 to Colorado State-Pueblo.

“That was our last game,” Lauters said of the playoff game. “You can’t not think about that every day you come out here. That’s what’s been driving us all offseason, especially in this fall camp. Our defense played pretty well, but our offense played just terrible. As an offensive unit, we’re coming into this game with a little chip on our shoulders.”

Both teams have most of the key cogs in place. Minnesota State is a little younger on the offensive side and has a new play-caller in interim offensive coordinator Joe Beschorner.

But both quarterbacks, Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini, are back, as is top running back Connor Thomas.

Lloyd torched UMD for 277 yards passing and three touchdowns last season.

“It’s been much like any other fall camp, with the ups and downs, ebb and flow, but when you’re facing another national power like the Bulldogs, you’re definitely preparing the best you can,” Minnesota State football coach Todd Hoffner said. “We gauge things off who we’re playing. We’re preparing for our first game of the year, to be our toughest game of the year.”

Hoffner seems to just like talking football again. He made national headlines in 2012 after losing his job at Minnesota State amid child pornography charges that were later deemed untrue.

Last fall was his first season back. While he wasn’t at fault, he said the experience changed him, made him milder, made him better as a person. After last year’s playoff win over the Bulldogs, he personally went and shook the hands of every media member in attendance, just thanking them for being there.

He said the Mavericks still have work to do, especially on the recruiting front. Uncertainty and speculation hurt a couple classes. Hoffner said he is trying his best to “keep it on the tracks.”

A matchup like tonight is good for both programs, he said, good for college football in general. Hoffner laughed when being asked if the schedules were rigged, saying the schedules were long in the making.

“Wow, what a matchup, what hype,” Hoffner said. “It’s a pretty amazing venue, to have two marquee programs, going head to head, right out of the gate. Hopefully it lives up to its billing, and people get to enjoy some great Division II football.”

UMD had four turnovers against the Mavericks last season, including three fumbles, but much of that damage was done in the first half. The game was tied 10-10 at halftime. The Bulldogs were confident, having been a second-half team all season, before Minnesota State exploded for nearly 300 yards of offense in the second half. The key stat that stuck out was third downs, where UMD was 0-for-14, unheard of during the Curt Wiese era as offensive coordinator and head coach.

Wiese downplayed the matchup, saying UMD couldn’t get lost in the hype.

“We have to remember as a football team, this is our opening game. It’s a conference game, this is no different than our other openers,” Wiese said. “With that said, this is as strong of an opponent as we’ve had in Week 1.”

UMD certainly appears to have done its homework in the offseason. Lauters is looking like a bodybuilder, and junior quarterback Drew Bauer, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, is looking like a linebacker. That bodes well for the Bulldogs’ run-heavy offense. Players need to be able to take a pounding, especially against an experienced Mavericks defense led by senior end Josh Gordon, who set a Mavericks record with 17.5 quarterback sacks last season.

“Mankato is how we ended our season last year, and it’s how we’re going to start our season this year,” Bauer said. “No excuses. They were the better team. We weren’t very good on first downs. It took a while to watch that tape.”

Lauters was held in check, rushing 18 times for 83 yards, while uncharacteristically fumbling the ball twice, including on the opening play.

Lauters, of Cedarburg, Wis., just north of Milwaukee, was recruited by most NSIC schools, as well as Football Championship Subdivision programs, and narrowed his choices to UMD and Minnesota State, taking visits to both. Lauters visited Mankato just before visiting Duluth.

Lauters loves UMD, and said a victory against the Mavericks would be the perfect start to his final collegiate season.

“I haven’t played a good game against Mankato. I feel like I’m due for one,” Lauters said, laughing. “It’s a huge game. I hate to put everything on one game, but starting the season, this is a huge game for us.

“This football team as a whole, is unlike any other team I met with. The city is great, and the family atmosphere and coaches are genuine. I’ve got absolutely no regrets. This was the best decision of my life so far.”

College football

No. 3 UMD at No. 1 Minn. State-Mankato

What: NCAA Division II football opener

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: Blakeslee Stadium, Mankato, Minn.

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 89

Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1

Internet: ESPN3

Twitter: @TacoJon1

UMD at Minnesota State-Mankato

 

National rankings: UMD is ranked No. 3 in the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II preseason poll and No. 7 by D2Football.com; Minnesota State is No. 1 in both.

Series: UMD holds a 20-15-1 lead in a rivalry that dates to 1932, the Bulldogs’ third year of intercollegiate football. UMD has won eight of the last 12 meetings, but not the last two. Minnesota State outscored the Bulldogs 34-7 in the second half en route to a 44-17 victory in last year’s national quarterfinals. The year before, the Mavericks held on for a 21-17 victory, snapping UMD’s school-record 41-game NSIC home winning streak.

Coaches: Curt Wiese begins his third season as Bulldogs head coach. He has a 24-3 record, including two NSIC North Division titles and two NCAA playoff appearances. As offensive coordinator, UMD won national championships in 2008 and 2010. … Todd Hoffner is 48-14 going into his sixth season as Minnesota State coach, including NCAA playoff appearances in 2008, 2009 and a runner-up finish last fall. The two coaches have a history. Hoffner was Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s defensive coordinator in 1998, when Wiese quarterbacked the Pointers to a share of the WIAC title. Later, Hoffner gave Wiese his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Hoffner also coached UMD offensive coordinator Dan Larson at Eau Claire.

Outlook: Both teams return their top offensive stars from last season. UMD senior running back Logan Lauters is back after rushing for 1,531 yards and 14 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Drew Bauer, the NSIC North Division preseason offensive player of the year, passed for 2,403 yards and 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions. “That honor has nothing to do with me. It’s got everything to do with the 10 guys around me,” Bauer said. “We’ve got an excellent offensive line, great running backs and great receivers. My only job is to get the ball in their hands. They make the plays.” He added 983 rushing yards. … Minnesota State counters with a pair of experienced quarterbacks, Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini, who threw for a combined 3,000 yards, as well as running back Connor Thomas (1,363 yards, 13 TDs). Both quarterbacks are decently mobile, rushing for a combined 929 yards last year. UMD has covered any apparent holes with up-and-coming young players or transfers. The key will be getting the new players up to speed in a hurry. Minnesota State, meanwhile, is younger on the offensive line, with Wiese calling last year’s group “special.”