UMD’s football season comes to an end with a first round exit to Texas A&M-Commerce

 The Bulldogs come onto the field for their first round match-up versus the Texas A&M-Commerce Lions. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

The Bulldogs come onto the field for their first round match-up versus the Texas A&M-Commerce Lions. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

In Minnesota Duluth’s first appearance in the Division II championship since the 2016 season, the No. 5 Bulldogs are sent home early as they lost to the No. 15 and defending National Champions Texas A&M-Commerce Lions 33-17.

It was a cool 20 degree Nov. 17 afternoon as the Bulldogs were looking to advance to the second round for the first time since losing to Minnesota State-Mankato in the quarterfinals in 2014.

The first half was rough for the Bulldogs offensively and on special teams.

They could only muster a mere 53 yards of offense in the half and six of their eight possessions ended in a three-and-out.

“Crucial mistakes on key downs held us back and get behind the chains,” senior wideout Nate Ricci said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”

The special teams was especially brutal. Punter Cameron Hausman punted six times with and average net of 31.5 yards. But within those six punts, there were punts of 12, 22 and 24 yards, including one that was blocked. Their was even a failed fake punt attempt that the Lions did not come close to biting on.

 Texas A&M-Commerce lines up for the kickoff in the first quarter. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

Texas A&M-Commerce lines up for the kickoff in the first quarter. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

One of the biggest killers in the game was right before the end of the first half. With 46 seconds left in the second quarter, the Bulldogs were at their own 27 and instead of running out the clock and go into halftime with the lead, they ran their offense to try and score some more. On a third down and five, quarterback Mike Rybarczyk ran to the left and went out of bounds to stop the clock. That led to the Bulldogs to punt with 5 seconds left in the half and the Lions returned it 79 yards to take the lead 17-14 at the half.

“I did the math,” head coach Curt Wiese said, “we were going to end up with having to punt the football because they had timeouts regardless. We took a crack at creating a first down at the end of the half knowing that we cross the 50 yard line you got a shot with the wind to be able to kick it. We got the punt off we can’t let a 70 yard punt return go the other way.”

The defense is what kept the Bulldogs in the game. They came up huge in the second quarter as they were the Bulldogs only offense. In the first defensive drive of the second quarter, senior linebacker Gus Wedig read the wide receiver screen perfectly and jumped in front of the pass and took it 80 yards untouched to the house.

“In the passing game they weren’t too complex,” Wedig said, “they love those screens, so I saw that [offensive] tackle climbing out towards me and all I gotta do is beat him up the field. I look back for the ball and it appeared in my hands, so that was pretty cool.”

Two defensive possessions later they score their second pick-six of the game as Texas A&M-Commerce quarterback Kane Wilson was hit as he threw and the pass landed in the lap of sophomore Nate Pearson as he ran 29 yards for the score.

Texas A&M-Commerce came out strong in the third quarter, scoring on their opening possession with a 40 yard pass touchdown.

It was a chippy game with both teams jawing at each other for most of the game, including multiple personal foul penalties for both teams, most of them offsetting.

 Quarterback Ben Everhart (14) runs through the hole. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

Quarterback Ben Everhart (14) runs through the hole. Photo by Rebecca Kottke

After pulling the game within a touchdown, early in the fourth after a field goal, the special teams let the Bulldogs down again. Halfway through the final quarter, the Lions blocked their second punt of the game only this time it was returned 20 yards for the touchdown.

That put the score at 30-17 after Commerce missed the extra point and put the game out of reach for the Bulldogs, especially with how the offense played.

Rybarczyk was pulled late in the third quarter for fellow junior Ben Everhart. Everhart led the Bulldogs on their field goal drive, but in the drive following the blocked punt he threw a costly interception that was the final nail in the coffin.

The Lions added a field goal after the interception which made the score 33-17.

The season ended not as the Bulldogs hoped, but they had a great season. They finished the season undefeated and outscored their opponents by over 350 points. Although they will lose nine of their starters due to graduation, coach Wiese believes that they have a chance to return to the tournament next season.

“We’ve won more games than anybody in Division II over the last eleven years so I like our chances always of having an opportunity to be back in the national playoffs,” Wiese said. “That’s what we’re about, those are our expectations, our expectation are to win games like that that’s why it’s disappointing to sitting in this seat. But we expect to be back.”

As for Texas A&M-Commerce, they will advance to the second round and will take on the no. 2 seed Tarleton State next Saturday.