Dec. 11, 2008

By Brandon Misener
Special to NCAA.com from D2Football.com

It truly has been an unpredictable and exciting season of Division II Football.

Two teams no one expected to be in the championship game will fight for the title Saturday in Florence, Ala.  Although the teams are essentially mirror images of each other, their resumes are quite different.

This week it is all about the Bulldogs and Bearcats as Minnesota-Duluth will play Northwest Missouri State in the Division II Football Championship. Kickoff is set for 1 pm ET.

Minnesota-Duluth plays in the Northern Sun, a conference that allows only 24 scholarships.  It would be a mistake to believe that UMD is a typical NSIC team, however, as most of the players on their roster were recruited while the team had 36 scholarships as a member of the now-defunct North Central Conference.  Nonetheless, the Bulldogs are representing the NSIC in its first championship appearance.

Northwest Missouri is no stranger to the national championship.  The Bearcats will appear in their sixth championship game in the last 11 years.  They have lost the last three championship games.

The Bearcats play in the MIAA, one of the country’s toughest conferences.  So, not only were they not supposed to even win their own conference, a return trip to Florence seemed out of the question.

Conventional logic says that there is no way a team from the Northern Sun wins on the road at Grand Valley or plays in the championship game.  Conventional logic also says that there is no way that Northwest Missouri would return to the championship game for a fourth-straight year.

Obviously, conventional logic is wrong.

How They Arrived In Florence

Minnesota-Duluth has the chance to be the third team in Division II history to go 15-0 on a season (Grand Valley and Northwest Missouri are the other two).

The Bulldogs ravaged their competition in the regular season, winning the Northern Sun title.  The fewest points they scored during the regular season were 38 against St. Cloud and Winona.  They recorded a shutout on the season, gave up seven points in only four contests, and gave up a season-high of 21 points three times. 

The playoffs have been a little tougher for the Bulldogs, but they did have their best game of the playoffs last week against California (Pa.).  They are averaging 28 points per game during the playoffs and are giving up only 10 points per game.

Northwest Missouri has gone undefeated since a season-opening loss to Abilene Christian, a streak of 13 straight games.  They will be looking to go 14-1 for the second time in school history.

The Bearcats have been very consistent on offense in 2008, scoring 35 points or more in eight games during the regular season.  Their defense recorded two shutouts during the regular season and gave up only seven points two other times.  Abilene Christian’s 44-point output was the highest of the season for Northwest’s defense.

Northwest has continued to play at a pretty high level in the playoffs, averaging 41 points and giving up 26.

The only common opponent between the two teams is Missouri Western.  Minnesota-Duluth pounded the Griffons 47-18 in week two while Northwest Missouri won 42-35 in week three.

The Stars

Both teams have good quarterbacks.  Ted Schlafke is probably a more dynamic player for UMD, but Northwest’s Joel Osborn is a competent leader.  Schlafke was recently named All-America by the American Football Coaches Association.  Isaac Odim and Laron Council provide a nice running game for UMD and NWMSU, respectively.

On defense, both teams have their best players in the middle of the secondary.  Free safety Tyler Yelk was an all-conference pick for UMD and Northwest’s Myles Burnsides was named the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year.  Burnsides was also named the Defensive Player of the Year by COSIDA.

The Meat and Potatoes

Of course the quarterbacks, running backs and award-winning defensive players get all the publicity, but these two teams would not be here without the dominating play of their offensive and defensive lines.  It might be cliché, but these two teams truly win football games in the trenches.

Three of UMD’s offensive linemen, Nate Baier, Tobias Lemke and Tobias Lemeke were named first team all-conference offensive line.  Drew Fautsch was the lone first team all-conference selection on the defensive line, but UMD has fewer chances for recognition there because they run a 3-4 defense.

Northwest Missouri guards Jeremy Davis and Tom Pestock were both named first team all-conference on the offensive line while Sean Paddock was a unanimous choice on the defensive line.

The Harlon Hill

Before the two teams kick off the championship game, a winner will be named in the race for the 2008 Harlon Hill award.  The best group of finalists in a very long time will find out who wins on Friday night.

Abilene Christian running back Bernard Scott, Central Washington quarterback Mike Reilly, and hometown hero A.J. Milwee (quarterback, North Alabama’s) are all deserving of the award and would be a great selection.  However, the award will most likely go to Scott, who has clearly been the most outstanding player this year.