The NCAA Division II defending champions are back on the winning track heading into their showdown with St. Cloud State
As much as it pained Chase Vogler to admit it, the Minnesota Duluth quarterback could find no other way to explain his team's performance in a 7-0 defeat at Wayne State (Neb.) in its third game of the season. The Bulldogs, who had won two NCAA Division II titles and 43 of 45 games since 2008, had forgotten how awful it feels to lose.
They got a none-too-subtle reminder on a misty Saturday in September. Wayne State ended UMD's 31-game winning streak in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and handed the Bulldogs their first shutout loss in league play since 1989, forcing Vogler and his teammates into some uncomfortable introspection.
"We didn't come out with enough emotion in that game," said the junior from Inver Grove Heights. "I think we were too accustomed to winning. We were taking it for granted."
Five weeks deeper into the season, the Bulldogs still feel the sting of that lousy day -- which, in the confounding logic of sports, is actually a good thing. One loss is all it takes to make every victory seem precious and vital. Heading into Saturday's NSIC showdown at No. 11 St. Cloud State, which will be pivotal in deciding the conference champion, the sixth-ranked Bulldogs are keen to prove how much they have taken that idea to heart.
Since the loss ended numerous streaks -- 128 league games without a shutout, 23 consecutive road victories, 17 wins in a row dating to September 2010 -- UMD has concentrated on shoring up basic skills on both sides of the ball. That has led to a new streak of five victories, keeping the Bulldogs atop the NSIC standings with St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato at 6-1.
"People ask if that loss was an awakening," coach Bob Nielson said. "Maybe it was, for all of us. We had to get back to work and focus on the little things we hadn't done well the first three weeks of the season.
"That game refocused us. And we're a team that's still improving, which I think is a good thing. We're still finding areas we can improve upon and need to improve upon, and that's continuing to keep us focused week to week."
Nielson anticipated this year would not be as smooth as the undefeated championship season of 2010, given the inexperience at some critical positions. While Vogler and the entire offensive line returned, the Bulldogs lost three stellar running backs -- Brad Foss, Brian Hanson and All-America Isaac Odim -- to graduation. The two most experienced returnees, Nate Bauer and Chaz Thomas, are injured.
That complicated things for a team that relies on a strong rushing game. UMD also lost four of its top five receivers; All-America linebackers Kiel Fechtelkotter and Robbie Aurich; and two starters on the defensive line. With so many inexperienced players filling important positions, the Bulldogs lacked consistency early in the season.
Kicker David Nadeau said they also had fallen into a routine in which they expected to win every week. Their failure to score against Wayne State reminded them that even the most talented veterans needed to pay attention to every detail, no matter how small.
The loss cost UMD its No. 1 national ranking, but Nielson said he saw major improvement just one week later in a 26-23 victory at Bemidji State. Since then, Vogler has seen the Bulldogs sharpen their preparation and execution, and the young players have grown much more confident. A pair of true freshmen, running back Brian Lucas (74.2 yards per game) and wide receiver Zach Zweifel (49.9), lead the team in rushing and receiving yards, with redshirt freshman running back Austin Sikorski and sophomore receiver Joe Reichert right behind.
After their loss, Vogler said, it annoyed the Bulldogs to hear people ask what was wrong with them. The team considers itself capable of getting to the NCAA playoffs and making a run. First, it must get past St. Cloud State, which resembles UMD with its solid running game, sturdy defense and versatile quarterback Phillip Klaphake.
For all they hope to achieve, the Bulldogs won't soon forget there is also something they want to avoid. "On our team, we have a lot of guys who hate to lose more than they love to win," Nadeau said. "That was a long bus ride home from Wayne State. Nobody wants to go through that again."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org
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