Of the 14 NSIC schools that play football, only four remain unbeaten through two weeks of the season, and that number will be even smaller after this week.
No. 13 Minnesota Duluth (2-0) plays at Winona State (2-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday in a battle of NSIC unbeatens.
UMD is coming off a 30-10 victory over then-third-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato before a record crowd of 6,536 fans at Malosky Stadium in the Bulldogs’ home opener last Saturday. It was also part of Military Appreciation Weekend, with UMD’s tribute helmets even being featured on ESPN’s College GameDay.
There was a lot of emotion in that one, but the Bulldogs have to quickly hit reset, according to coach Curt Wiese.
“We talked to them Sunday morning when we had a chance to meet with these guys,” Wiese said. “That was an awesome win, but win or lose against Mankato, it wasn’t going to define us. We’re going to find out this week. This is going to be a challenge for us. Winona has a very good team, and they’re going to have a very good environment down there. We’re going to challenge our guys to be ready to go.”
UMD’s victory over Minnesota State snapped a five-game losing streak against the Mavericks. It was Minnesota State’s first conference loss since October 2016 and was the Mavericks’ lowest regular-season point total since 2010.
“That was an emotional win for us. We had that circled on our schedule for two years,” said UMD senior captain Dan Monson, a defensive lineman. “It builds your confidence, but at the same, we realize, it’s just one game.”
Winona State also has confidence after dispatching of its first two opponents, though the Warriors had to rally for a 27-13 victory last week at Minnesota State-Moorhead. Winona State comes in with a 37-10 average scoring margin while UMD is at 36-12.
The biggest thing is experience.
UMD came into this season returning nine of 15 seniors from last year, including Monson, who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.
For Winona, 13 of their 15 seniors from last fall are back, including players at the key positions of quarterback (Owen Burke) and running back (Javian Roebuck).
Winona State has two players — defensive tackle Cole LaLiberty and punter returner/slot receiver Jake Balliu — who are in their seventh seasons at Winona State.
“Yeah, that experience does help,” Winona State coach Tom Sawyer said. “You get the right people and that does matter. They’ve played a lot of big games and have played a lot of football for you, so you don’t have to reteach as much. Plus, they’ve made a commitment, obviously, to come back and go to grad school and do all that kind of stuff.”
Sawyer laughed when talking about how it seems like he has known of UMD senior quarterback John Larson for 10 years, because Sawyer pretty much has. Larson, of Braham, Minnesota, has been at UMD six years but was a known commodity in college recruiting circles before that.
“That’s a guy who has been around for a while,” Sawyer said. “He’s a fantastic player and was obviously very deserving of the NSIC North Division offensive preseason player of the year. He’s got plenty of weapons around him as well. Every week he keeps getting better and better, so that’s our No. 1 concern.
“He was on our (recruiting) radar in high school, but I know he was on UMD’s radar really fast. He was definitely a kid everyone was looking at, that’s for sure.”
Larson has already thrown for 631 yards in just two games this season, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He is just 127 passing yards away from becoming just the fifth Bulldog to reach 5,000 passing yards for his career, where he would join Ted Schlafke, Drew Bauer, Ricky Fritz and current UMD offensive coordinator Chase Vogler.
One day Larson and Co. will be able to look back and reflect on the wonderfully long careers they have had here, but until then, the Bulldogs still got a lot of games to play.
“Last Saturday, the energy was great,” Monson said. “I’ve been here for six years and that’s the best crowd I’ve ever seen — by far — and we feed off that. It was a great night, great energy.
But we’ve got a long season, and you’ve got to get back to work just like it’s any other week. You can’t ride that wave and stay too high for too long. You gotta put it behind you and move on.”
NO. 13 MINNESOTA DULUTH AT WINONA STATE
What: NSIC football game
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Maxwell Field, Winona, Minnesota
Records: UMD 2-0; Winona State 2-0
Forecast: sunny with a high of 74 and 6 mph wind
Radio: KDAL 610 AM and 103.9 FM
MINNESOTA DULUTH AT WINONA STATE
National rankings: Minnesota Duluth is ranked No. 13 in the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II poll and No. 16 by d2football.com; Winona State isn’t ranked.
Series: UMD holds a 35-10 lead, including six straight after a 37-17 victory Oct. 20, 2018, in Winona, Minnesota.
Coaches: Curt Wiese is 73-15 in his eighth season at UMD; Tom Sawyer is 192-85 in his 25th season at Winona State. The dean of NSIC coaches, Sawyer has the highest win total of any current NCAA Division II head coach who has spent their entire head coaching career at one school. Sawyer announced in April he will retire following the conclusion of this season. “Winona State is always very well coached,” Wiese said. “Coach Sawyer has had a heckuva career there and we have a lot of mutual respect between our programs. We’re looking forward to a great game on Saturday.”
Outlook: Senior quarterback John Larson was 11-for-21 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown, and he added nine carries for 43 yards and two more scores as Minnesota Duluth downed third-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato 30-10 last week before a record crowd of 6,536 at Malosky Stadium as part of Military Appreciation Weekend.
“We owe a lot to the campus and community the way they came out and supported our team,” Wiese said. “As far as all-time regular season wins, with the excitement on the field, the energy in the stadium, that certainly ranks towards the top,” Wiese said. “It was a fun atmosphere to play in.”
Cazz Martin added 14 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown while Zach Ojile (2 receptions, 65 yards) and Armani Carmickle (3-63, TD) led the UMD receiving corps. Austin Kurylo had nine tackles and Marcus Glodowski added eight tackles and an interception to lead the defense.
Winona State rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to beat host Minnesota State-Moorhead 27-13 last week. Senior quarterback Owen Burke helped spark the rally by connecting with receiver Sawyer Maly for a 70-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter while adding another touchdown pass to start the fourth quarter.
Burke has thrown for 521 yards in just two games this season, with four touchdowns to one interception, while fellow senior Javian Roebuck leads the rushing attack with 28 carries for 189 yards and four touchdowns.
“We just can’t turn the ball over. We’ve got to take care of the football,” Sawyer said. “Offensively, we’ve got to score on some big plays and defensively, we’ve got to try to control Larson the best we can. I think it’s going to come down to making big plays, on both sides of the ball. They do it, we do it, and I think we’re going to have a great battle on our hands.”
— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune