Ronnie Ramos, NCAA.com
FLORENCE, Ala. — The University of Minnesota-Duluth completed its second perfect season in three years Saturday with a come-from-behind 20-17 victory against Delta State to claim the Division II football national championship.
It’s the second national title in school history for Minnesota-Duluth, which also went 15-0 in winning the 2008 championship, and ended a great run by a young Delta State team — the first unranked team to make the title game and only the third three-loss team to make it to the finals. Grand Valley State (2006) and Northwest Missouri State (1998) also posted 15-0 records en route to the national title.
As time expired, Minnesota-Duluth’s David Nadeau kicked a 32-yard field goal that barely curled inside the left upright to cap a wild finish to a wild game that featured five lead changes.
“From my angle, I knew it was close,” UMD head coach Bob Nielson said. “I saw the officials’ arms go up and, honestly, for a minute there, I was a little stunned. Winning that way is a pretty special way to win.”
On the field, Nadeau also had doubts. “When it came off my foot, I knew it was going to be close. It wasn’t the best kick that I ever hit in my life by any means.”
Like the rest of the game, it was just good enough. UMD, the nation’s top-ranked team, struggled all game. The Bulldogs converted only one of 11 third-down attempts until late in the fourth quarter. Delta State’s spread offense moved the ball with ease most of the game, but turnovers and three failed fourth-down attempts inside the 10 yard line allowed UMD to hang around.
“We made some mistakes,” Delta State head coach Ron Roberts said. “There were opportunities there for us to win the game. In these games, you get one of the highest thrills of winning you can get, but there is also the deepest low you can get when you come up short in this thing.”
UMD knew it was in for a fight. “Not a lot went our way in that game,” Nielson said. “we just kept plugging away and believing.”
The game actually started with everything going right for Minnesota-Duluth. Zach Hulce returned the opening kickoff 47 yards to the Delta State 47. The Bulldogs methodically drove to the Delta State 14-yard line before stalling and kicking a 32-yard field goal. The Bulldogs got the ball back when Delta State’s Brandon Lucas fumbled on the kickoff return and Minnesota-Duluth recovered on the Delta State 34-yard line. The Statesmen defense held and sacked Volger on third down to force the Bulldogs out of field-goal range.
After controlling the ball for more than five minutes to start the game, Delta State (11-4) finally got its first break. The Bulldogs tried to punt and pin the Statesmen deep, but the snap sailed over punter Alex Miller’s head. Miller recovered the errant snap and tried to punt it, but that was blocked by Melvin Griffin and Delta State recovered at the Minnesota-Duluth 11. Delta State struck quickly on an 8-yard pass from Micah Davis to Maurice Moore.
The Bulldogs came right back with a nine-play, 76-yard drive to regain the lead. Volger hit Ben Hulmer with a 14-yard touchdown pass to complete the 5:01 drive and put the Bulldogs up 10-7.
The Statesmen then failed to score on two time-consuming drives. The first ended when Trevar Deed fumbled at the Minnesota-Duluth 12. The second, which took 6:26 off the clock, ended when the Statesmen went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2 and Davis’ pass was incomplete.
“Our kicking game hasn’t been as solid as we’d like,” Martin said of his decision to go for it on fourth down. The Statesmen had missed 13 extra points this year, including four blocked in the playoffs. Roberts said he had no regrets. “I don’t think I’d change anything. I’d make the same call again.”
The Statesmen defense was able to force the Bulldogs to punt twice in the second quarter and Davis got one more chance before halftime. Davis completed four consecutive passes as the Statesmen drove 90 yards in 1:30 and retook the lead with a 23-yard catch and run from Davis to L.J. Castile.
In the third quarter, Roberts and the Statesmen again were faced with a fourth and short inside the Bulldogs’ 10-yard line. Again they went for it. Again they failed.
Roberts said he wanted to try to pull away. “We felt we were going to beat them, and beat them pretty good. The biggest thing I said was we’ve got to score when we have our opportunities and make sure you do not let them hang around.
“They are [15-0] for a reason. They know how to win. Don’t make it close.”
That’s exactly what happened. No one scored in the third quarter and Delta State took a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter.
UMD finally put a drive together – and finally converted a third-down opportunity. Vogler sidestepped a blitzing Garrett Williams and hit Brian Hanson with a 28-yard pass to get the Bulldogs into Statesmen territory. UMD finished the 74-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run by Brad Foss to take a 17-14 lead.
The UMD defense held on Delta State’s next possession and the Bulldogs got the ball back with 6:15 left in the game.
Hanson fumbled on the first play and Delta State recovered at the UMD 26. The Statesmen drove down and had a first-and-goal from the 2, but were unable to score on three running plays. With 2:25 left, for the third time in the game, Delta State lined up to go for it again on fourth-and-goal.
A false start moved the ball back to the 6 and Roberts finally allowed his kicker, Matt Snyder, to try a field goal. The kick was blocked, but the play had been blown dead because of a delay of game. Snyder tried it again — this time from 27 yards — and the Statesmen tied the game with 2:22 left.
Zach Hulce fumbled the ensuing kickoff, appeared to pick it up and scamper past midfield. Roberts challenged the play, claiming that Hulce’s knee was down when he picked up the ball. Replay officials agreed with Roberts and overturned the call.
UMD, pinned back at its own 11, went three and out. Delta State got the ball back at its own 46 and appeared set for a victory drive. But on second and four, Davis tried to connect downfield with Castile and his pass was intercepted by Cody Eich and returned to midfield. “I just threw the ball behind the guy,” Davis said. “It was a corner route, he was wide open and I threw it behind him.”
That was the opportunity UMD needed. Two plays later, Volger connected with Hanson on a 28-yard screen pass to set up the game-winning opportunity for Nadeau to kick the second game-winning field goal in championship history. Ted Clem’s 50-yard field goal gave Troy State an 18-17 win against North Dakota State in 1984.
“What more can you ask for,” Nadeau said. “It’s a dream come true for a kicker.”
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