University of Sioux Falls football coach Jon Anderson has fond memories of his last game against Minnesota Duluth.
UMD, not so much.
It was the season opener Aug. 31, 2017, at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. It was also Anderson’s head coaching debut with Sioux Falls, and better yet, the 17th-ranked Cougars knocked off the 10th-ranked Bulldogs 26-7.
These matchups, like Minnesota State-Mankato, like Winona State, are the ones Bulldogs fans wish they were treated to every year. In a 16-team league, that’s not happening, but Saturday it does as Sioux Falls (4-2) hosts No. 23 UMD (5-1) in an NSIC contest at 1 p.m. at Bob Young Field in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It was a good one for us,” Anderson said of the last meeting. “You want to play the best in the league every year. We feel we’re up to that caliber, and I know they are, so we’re excited to play against that kind of high-level competition.”
Sioux Falls is a successful example of NSIC expansion since the program left the NAIA and joined the NCAA league in 2012. The Cougars made three straight NCAA Division II playoff appearances from 2015-2017, so followers of Division II football may have been surprised to see them already having two losses this early in the season.
Anderson didn’t blame it on rebuilding. He certainly didn’t blame it on calls or injuries. He said the Cougars’ losses to Concordia-St. Paul to open the season and to crosstown rival Augustana three weeks ago were just good ol’ fashion losses.
“They followed pretty similar recipes for disaster,” Anderson said. “We turned the ball over a couple times and didn’t play well on special teams. In the Augustana game, we gave up 20 points, and 17 of those were on drives inside our own 20-yard line. Our defense was very stout and playing great football, but when you’re short porching it all day, it’s bad news.”
So if you’re thinking the Cougars are down, UMD football coach Curt Wiese isn’t buying it. He’s watched enough film to know.
“I think they’re as good as we’ve seen, I really do,” Wiese said. “They’re athletic, well coached and explosive. We’re going to have to play at the top of our game to get a win.”
Sioux Falls has outscored opponents by an average of 34.3 to 15.7 and are allowing only 217.7 yards per game, including just 75.5 on the ground.
Offensively, the Cougars are led by senior quarterback Caden Walters, who has thrown for 1,391 yards — 231.8 per game — with nine touchdowns to only two interceptions. Walters has also rushed for 274 yards and six more scores, so he can pretty much do it all. Walters has shown significant improvement in his second year as a starter after transferring from his hometown Dodge City (Kan.) Community College.
“Caden Walters is a good football player,” Anderson said. “Last year he was new to us, but he got comfortable with our schemes and got comfortable with our receivers. He’s a hell of a player and has worked really hard to take it to a higher level. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He did good things at Dodge City, and he’s doing good things now, and we’re just thrilled to have him.”
Sioux Falls missed the NCAA playoffs and had to settle for the Mineral Water Bowl in 2014 despite going 11-1. However, generally speaking, most years a team with two losses will receive strong playoff consideration and teams with one loss usually make it. The Cougars still feel like they have a shot at making the playoffs, while the last thing UMD would want is another loss.
“That’s the idea,” Anderson said of trying to win out. “We’re going to do everything that we can do. That’s why this is a big one for us. Our guys are energized. They understand what’s at stake, and that’s the way they are approaching it.”
Meanwhile, UMD has been resembling a MASH unit, but the Bulldogs are hoping for the return of another do-it-all quarterback, junior John Larson. Larson missed last week with an upper body injury but returned to throwing the football Wednesday.
“We expect to see him in a game of this magnitude,” Anderson said. “In this business, you expect the starter to play, and then you adjust from that standpoint.”
Meanwhile, UMD sophomore left tackle Jake Zeiler is done for the season. Junior Noah LeBlanc will move from right guard to tackle, with Treyvon Cahlan filling in at his old guard sport. Meanwhile, Wiese said wide receiver Obi Ibeneme, who has yet to play, probably won’t play this season and could wind up taking a medical redshirt.
Cornerbacks Justic’e King and Michael Kirkendoll are expected back this week. Kirkendoll didn’t play last week and King only played a few snaps in the Bulldogs’ 21-7 homecoming win over Wayne State. Wiese gave the defense a lot of credit.
Last week UMD had seven quarterback sacks, led by junior outside linebacker Nate Pearson of Lake Nebagamon with 2.5.
“Our defense has been good all year, outside of one outing,” Wiese said. “They’ve played extremely well, have forced turnovers and have been able to put pressure on the quarterback. We need to continue to play at a high level, because offensively right now, we haven’t really been explosive. We’ve had to work for everything we’ve got. When you do that, you need to play good defense, good field position, and fortunately we’ve been able to do that.”
NO. 23 MINNESOTA DULUTH AT SIOUX FALLS
What: NSIC football game
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bob Young Field, Sioux Falls, S.D. (5,00 capacity, artificial turf)
Sioux Falls forecast: sunny with a high of 65 and 9 mph wind
TV: Midco Sports Network
Radio: KDAL-AM 610 (610kdal.com)