DULUTH - This was not the opening that Bob Nielson had in mind. Minnesota Duluth, which needed a victory Saturday to secure a share of the league championship and a Division II playoff berth, fell apart on its opening drive -- then fell behind Minnesota State Mankato 6-0.
Nielson didn't worry. The UMD coach knew his team could take a punch and come back strong, and it rewarded his faith with a 31-19 victory at Malosky Stadium. Behind a masterful performance by quarterback Chase Vogler and a stout defense, the No. 10 Bulldogs (9-2) reeled off 17 consecutive points in the second and third quarters to keep alive their chances of defending their Division II national title.
As the Bulldogs finished atop the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for the fourth consecutive year, they likely ruined the Mavericks' chances of making the playoffs. The Mavericks (8-3) could have kept the championship all to themselves with a victory; instead, they fell to 8-2 in league play, tying them with UMD and St. Cloud State.
The Bulldogs will find out what lies ahead when the playoff bracket is announced Sunday afternoon. As they drew the curtain on their rockiest regular season since 2007, they were ecstatic to have the opportunity for an encore.
"In some ways, this game symbolized our year,'' said Nielson, whose team's two losses this season equaled the number they had in the previous three years. "We had some stumbling blocks along the way, but we played our best football at the end, and I thought we played our best football at the end of the game [Saturday]. I'm really proud of them to finish this way.''
Vogler completed a season-high 18 passes for 133 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown toss to Joe Reichert that put UMD ahead 14-13 with 45 seconds left in the first half. That turned out to be the game's most critical play, getting the Bulldogs on track after their poor start.
UMD got to the Mavericks 19-yard line on the opening drive but came away empty when two penalties and a sack pushed the ball back to midfield. MSU kicker Daniel Padilla made a 27-yard field goal with 6 minutes, 2 seconds left in the first quarter, and after UMD gained just 5 yards on its next possession, Padilla followed with a 53-yarder to set a school record and put the Mavericks up 6-0.
The Bulldogs continued to struggle until Zach Hulce scored on a 15-yard run with 2:01 left in the half. Their 7-6 lead was immediately erased when Dennis Carter, a former Bulldog, returned the kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown that put the Mavericks ahead 13-7. With 1:36 remaining until halftime, Vogler completed five of six passes on a drive that ended with him finding Reichert in the end zone.
"That was probably one of our biggest drives of the season,'' Vogler said. "We play our best football when something is on the line.''
UMD finished with 424 yards of total offense to the Mavericks' 219, had a 15-minute advantage in possession time and sacked MSU quarterback Jon Daniels four times.