Minnesota-Duluth head coach Bob Nielson was asked if he is ever amazed by what the Bulldogs have accomplished as of late. His team has won two NCAA Division II national championships in three seasons, both with undefeated records, and has established itself as the next dynasty in small-college football.
Nielson knows what his team has done isn’t easy, but at the same time, he wouldn’t go as far as to say he is amazed by the run of success.
“It’s an interesting question, and I get asked it by a lot of people,” Nielson said. “I would say we have an expectation to be the best football team in the country. We want to win every game we play and we want to play for a national championship at the end of the year. It takes a great investment to get to that position and we are proud of what we have accomplished.”
Duluth put the exclamation point on its second national championship in December when David Nadeau nailed a 32-yard field goal as time expired in a 20-17 win against unranked Delta State. The Bulldogs capped a 15-0 season with the win, the same record they had when they won the title in 2008 with a 21-14 win against Northwest Missouri State.
Junior quarterback Chase Vogler gives credit to the coaching staff for creating an atmosphere of success in Duluth.
“We have a great program,” Vogler said. “The coaches do a great job of preparing us to play and our system works. We always go into a game feeling like we can succeed and it’s an awesome feeling to win games. I couldn’t ask to be in a better situation as a player. Hopefully we can continue the run this year.”
There have been 12 unbeaten champions in DII history, and two of those perfect seasons belong to the Bulldogs. UMD is expected to contend for the national title again this year and has been ranked as high as No. 1 in some preseason polls.
The Bulldogs come into the new year riding a 30-game win streak in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which puts them four shy of the league mark for consecutive wins. The Bulldogs return 45 letterwinners, including eight offensive starters and six starters on the defensive side of the ball.
Having experience is the key to keeping a dynasty alive, and while each year is different, Nielson notes that all of his teams have similar traits.
“There are a few things that have led to our success,” Nielson said. “We have players who are highly competitive and the success of one season carries over to the next. I also give a lot of credit to the commitment the coaching staff and players have shown. You have to work hard to stay on top, and we’ve been fortunate to have people in our program who are willing to work hard and stay focused.”
But staying on top hinges on players willing to embrace the challenge of being the team to beat. Vogler, a preseason candidate for offensive player of the year in the NSIC, said he and his teammates relish that role.
“We expect teams to bring their best game when they play us,” Vogler said. “We will face a lot of talented teams this year, and we know we have to play our best if we want to have a chance to win. We enjoy the challenge of being at our best every week.”
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Bulldogs have played in enough games where you either win or go home. UMD’s playoff experience is priceless.
“The playoffs are valuable because you learn how important each play is,” Nielson said. “The players understand that you don’t have a lot of room for error in the playoffs, and that experience has paid off for us in the regular season.”
UMD won most of its regular season games with relative ease, but when it got into the postseason, it was forced to grind out wins. All four of its games on the road to a national title were decided by nine points or less and two of its playoff wins were decided by three points.
Vogler believes the challenges the team faced in its 2010 playoff run will prepare the Bulldogs for the season ahead.
“We fought through a lot of adversity last year, and we have to have that same kind of mental toughness this year,” Vogler said. “I felt like we out-worked a lot of the teams we played last year, and we will have to continue to work hard if we want to be successful.”
The Bulldogs will be challenged right out of the gate. They open the 2011 campaign against Augustana (S.D.) on the road on Sept. 3.
UMD defeated Augustana 24-13 in the playoffs last season, but it expects the Vikings to be eager for revenge in a showdown between a pair of national powers.
“We are real excited about the start of a new season,” Vogler said. “Augustana has a great football team and they will definitely be ready to play us. We have to be ready to go when we hit the field. We know nothing is going to come easy for us, but we expect to win. Our goal is to win a national championship again. Anything less than that is a letdown.”
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