Inside UMD football’s historic defensive turnaround

After a season in which they allowed a school-record 33.1 points per game, the UMD football defense has come a long way. This season, the Bulldogs are only allowing an average of 15.7 points per game with one game to go on the schedule, largely due to the Bulldogs’ first three-game shutout streak since 1934.

Junior linebacker A.J. Naatz said that it took the young Bulldog defense a few weeks to reach its potential this season, but he believes the unit has been able to turn the corner since the start of its historic shutout streak.

“We’ve kind of found a rhythm,” Naatz said. “We started out the season and we kept going back and forth with guys on the field and who was out there, and I think we found our group and really took it from stride and continued to work hard and have fun.”

Even though they were not able to continue the shutout streak, the Bulldogs closed out their 2017 home schedule with a dominant 54-6 win over the University of Minnesota Crookston. These types of performances are a large contrast to the 38-point and 31-point games allowed by the defense earlier in the year.

UMD's defense has allowed an average of four points per game in their last five games, including three shutouts. Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics.

UMD's defense has allowed an average of four points per game in their last five games, including three shutouts. Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics.

“Lately our game plan has been pretty awesome,” Naatz said. “We’ve gone into the games really trusting what our coaches give to us and we’ve played it pretty well and we haven’t had to make a whole lot of adjustments. Usually we make adjustments at halftime and obviously we haven’t given up any point at halftime so there’s not a whole lot to adjust to.”

Among the more notable accomplishments of this Bulldog football team is their impressive 5-0 record in road games. Naatz said that while they understand that road games are business trips, part of the team’s success on the road this season is due to the strong team chemistry.

“We’re a fun group and we like to be around each other,” Naatz said. “When we go on the road, it’s just the 53 guys that we’ve got and we love to be around each other, we go and have fun, and we win football games. We always take it as ‘yeah, we’re going to have fun’ but it’s also a business trip and I think guys are old enough and understand that enough to be able to travel and win.”

The defense’s transition into becoming an elite unit did take some time, but it has led to historic results on the field. Through the first five games of the year, UMD allowed an average of 27.4 points per game as opposed to an outstanding 4 points per game through the next five games.

Naatz said that last year’s struggles on defense were something that helped motivate this year’s team to pick up its performance.

“We got our butts kicked all year long and we were a pretty young group and we took that to heart and that’s not what this football team and this program is about,” Naatz said. “We were still a little young at the beginning of the year but I think we’ve turned that around, starting to get more experience and just playing better.”

Injuries at the quarterback position have been a continuous challenge for the Bulldogs throughout the season, as four signal callers have had playing time under center for an offense that is still averaging over 30 points and almost 400 yards per game. The obstacles at quarterback have added an extra challenge that the defense has come to embrace, according to Naatz.

“There is a challenge but I wouldn’t say it’s pressure because as a defense it’s almost what you want, and if we’re playing well we’ll take any pressure we can get off our offense,” Naatz said. “If we can get three and outs and get them on the field so they can find a rhythm and do whatever we can to help our quarterback and that will just help our team win.”

UMD’s win over Minnesota Crookston clinched at least a share of its tenth straight NSIC North Division title. The Bulldogs will finish their regular season on Saturday, Nov. 11 against the Marauders of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

SportsTyler Schendel