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Hanging on to hope: Despite two tough road losses, Bulldogs believe there can still be a playoff place for them

Minnesota Duluth cornerback Darion Fletcher sulked in the locker room following the Bulldogs' 35-31 loss at Sioux Falls on Saturday. UMD rallied from 21 points down, only to fall, and with the loss, so too possibly went the team's hopes of making...

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Sioux Falls’ Max Mickey escapes from Minnesota Duluth’s Dan Branger at Bob Young Field on Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Jay Pickthorn / Argus Leader)

Minnesota Duluth cornerback Darion Fletcher sulked in the locker room following the Bulldogs’ 35-31 loss at Sioux Falls on Saturday.
UMD rallied from 21 points down, only to fall, and with the loss, so too possibly went the team’s hopes of making the NCAA Division II playoffs for an eighth straight season.
But UMD (1-2) isn’t ready to give up on those hopes just yet heading into the Bulldogs’ NSIC game Saturday against visiting Upper Iowa (3-0).
“After the Sioux Falls game, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re done,’ ” Fletcher said. “But a couple people told me after that we still have a chance. We added another playoff team in the region, so anything is possible.”
In 2014, Sioux Falls was left out of the playoffs despite just one loss, a defeat at perennial power Minnesota State-Mankato no less, but UMD feels a couple factors might work in its favor this year.
The Bulldogs’ strength of schedule should be up, having already played both No. 1 Mankato and now No. 7 Sioux Falls, and the NCAA Division II playoff field expanded from 24 to 28 teams this year, meaning seven teams from each of the nation’s four regions will make the field this year, rather than six.
The theme for the Bulldogs this week in practice was how they would respond. Practice on Tuesday was upbeat.
“We’ve had a pair of tough losses, but looking at the guy’s attitudes, I’m confident we’ve got a good football team, and good kids,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “We’re not going to make a lot of changes moving forward. We’re probably four or five plays from having a lot different feeling right now. We had a chance of being 3-0. The important thing is we’re not. We’re 1-2 and need to respond to that.”
UMD hasn’t been 1-2 since the 2007 season, and the Bulldogs slipped all the way from No. 7 to No. 25 in this week’s American Football Coaches Association Division II poll.
The team arrived back home in Duluth at 5 a.m. Sunday, a painfully long ride back for a squad that possibly had its aspirations dashed. The team worked out Sunday afternoon and watched film of the previous day’s game, which is customary.
"We played extremely well outside of four or five snaps,” Wiese said. “Those are the ones that cost you. I’m proud of the way our guys came out of the locker room in the second half, but that’s not going to win you football games. I’m excited to see how our guys come out on Saturday. We’re facing a lot of adversity this early in the season. It’s unchartered territory for us. Coaching and calling plays is easy when everything is going right. This is a challenging time for our staff, our program and our kids. We’ve got to take a deep look at what we’re doing, and make sure we’re confident we’re doing the right things.”
Making the playoffs with two losses wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Bulldogs, who went undefeated en route to winning the 2008 and 2010 national championships.
In 2011, UMD had the nation’s longest winning streak snapped in a 7-0 setback at Wayne (Neb.) State. The team later got trounced 35-7 at St. Cloud State. Despite the losses, the Bulldogs qualified for the playoffs, and showed they belonged, earning a pair of victories before falling 31-25 to Wayne (Mich.) State in the national quarterfinals.
“I talked to our guys about it on Sunday night, and I think it’s an important conversation to have,” Wiese said. “We’re used to being in the playoffs, and I think it’s important for our kids to realize there is still opportunity there. Our backs are against the wall and we need some help, but there is still opportunity there. All we can control is our football team. Every year the region shakes out differently, so who knows?”
Making things more difficult is the fact the strong Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which has 12 football teams, has been part of Super Region Three. The MIAA currently has three undefeated teams, while the NSIC has five. The region also includes the Great American Conference and Great Northwest Athletic Conference, making for 11 undefeated teams in all.
UMD will need teams to stumble and knock each other off, while winning out. If they can do that, then two road losses by a combined seven points won’t look so bad, but there is long way to go before that happens.
“We’ve got our hands full the next few games, starting with Upper Iowa,” Wiese said. “It’s like the old adage, there is blood in the water right now, and teams will certainly sense that and smell that and go after a team when they’re down. It’s got to be our mentality to fight back and respond.”

Related Topics: BULLDOG SPORTSFOOTBALL
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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