Texas A&M-Commerce punt returner Dominique Ramsey was asked how many hands Minnesota Duluth put on him during a return late in the first half of their NCAA Division II football playoff opener.
Ramsey couldn’t remember. After all, everything happened fast.
For Bulldogs fans, it was easy to remember: not enough.
Ramsey’s 79-yard punt return for touchdown just before the half was a backbreaker, sparking 15th-ranked Commerce to a 33-17 victory over the fifth-ranked Bulldogs on a sunny but frigid 20-degree Saturday before 1,029 at Malosky Stadium.
“Right before that punt return we were feeling pretty good, but that’s a deflating feeling watching a guy break nine tackles and run 70 yards for a punt return,” UMD senior wide receiver and returner Nate Ricci said. “It kind of took the momentum out of our hands, because we’re a football team that we’re up at the half, we’re feeling pretty good, but that flipped it. That was unfortunate.”
The defending national champion Lions (10-2) held the Bulldogs (11-1) to 188 yards - their lowest total in 12 years - and their punt return unit accounted for two scores, returning a blocked punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter for good measure.
“The deciding factor was we got beat pretty good in the kicking game,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “We knew going in that we were going to need to be able to flip the field, and giving up that punt return at the end of the first half was a critical mistake, and then having one blocked in a situation where we had an opportunity to flip the field, those are game changers, and you can’t let that happen against good football teams.”
UMD ran back two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game for the first time since 2010, an 80-yarder by inside linebacker Gus Wedig and a 29-yarder from outside linebacker Nate Pearson of Lake Nebagamon. UMD’s defense was playing with swagger, and the Bulldogs could have taken a 14-10 lead into halftime despite being outgained 157-53 in yards.
“Our defense had only given up two first downs the whole first half, and we knew we were playing well, but yet we were still behind,” Commerce coach Colby Carthel said. “I don’t know what my first-half speech would have been at that point.”
That’s when the game changed.
UMD took over at its own 27 with 46 seconds remaining before halftime and Commerce down to two timeouts. Quarterback Mike Rybarczyk threw incomplete on first down, stopping the clock, then Rybarczyk rushed twice. UMD was forced to punt, and Wedig, a tackling machine who also handles the Bulldogs’ long-snapping duties, was on the sideline with a hand injury.
UMD punter Cameron Hausman, who was roughed up early in the game and shaky throughout, nailed this punt, sending it 48 yards in a hurry, but he outkicked the coverage, and Ramsey did the rest, making the first guy miss and then cutting and weaving down the near sideline.
“I felt like everybody who got a hand on me had somebody blocking them,” Ramsey said. “Ten other guys had my back and led me into the end zone.”
Overshadowed by Ramsey’s dazzling return was the fact Commerce scored on the opening possession of the second half, creating a 14-point swing in less than 3 minutes of game time.
The Bulldogs, Super Region Four’s third seed, suddenly found themselves trailing 24-14 in a game in which their offense lacked any kind of punch.
Rybarczyk, who led the Bulldogs with 12 carries for just 21 yards, was 9-for-20 passing for 67 yards before giving way to backup Ben Everhart, who was 10-for-20 passing for 79 yards and an interception. UMD was held to 33 carries for 42 yards, 176 below their season average.
“This isn’t on Mike,” Wiese said. “That’s a unit that needs to be able to run the football. There were creases there, and opportunities to get the ball downfield in the passing game, but give Commerce credit. They were either in our face, or we were out of position to make a play.”
Wedig, part of a stellar UMD class of 22 seniors, finished with a personal-best 12 tackles to lead the Bulldogs, who held the Lions to 276 yards as the teams combined for just 464 yards and two offensive scores.
Kane Wilson was 14-for-31 passing for 213 yards to lead Commerce, with one touchdown to those two interceptions, while Ovie Urevbu had 27 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown. The sixth-seeded Lions are now 3-0 in Minnesota over the past two seasons and advance to play at second-seeded Tarleton State (11-0) in the second round.
“The kids had to be tough,” Carthel said. “We worked out at Superior High School (on Friday morning), about 9 a.m., and nearly every one of these guys was running around with their shirt off. I wasn’t about to take mine off, but I said, ‘We’re either a bunch of idiots, or we got a good chance to win,’ because they were embracing the cold and having fun with it. It was cold, but it was cold for both teams. We try to eliminate excuses.”
Minn. Duluth 0-14-0-3-17 First Quarter
Third Quarter Fourth Quarter
RUSHING - Texas A&M-Commerce, Urevbu 27-65, Carandal Hale 5-16, Wilson 3-12, Team 2-(-30). UMD, Mike Rybarczyk 12-21, Zach Ojile 5-17, Wade Sullivan 6-8, Mitchell Johnson-Martin 1-1, Team 1-(-1), Ben Everhart 8-(-4).
PASSING - Texas A&M-Commerce, Wilson 14-31-213-2. UMD, Everhart 10-20-79-1, Rybarczyk 9-20-67-0.
RECEIVING - Texas A&M-Commerce, Ryan Stokes 5-100, Wimberly 3-49, Urevbu 3-19, Vincent Hobbs 2-7, Matt Childers 1-38. UMD, Dain Hudson 5-31, Obi Ibeneme 3-48, Nate Ricci 3-37, Tyler Lattery 3-16, Sullivan 2-4, John-Ross Linscheid 2-4, Nick Eliason 1-6.