Dec. 13, 2008

By Brandon Misener
Special to

One of the most unpredictable Division II Football seasons in a very long time ended with an improbable championship.  

Minnesota-Duluth, a team from the 24-scholarship Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, beat fully funded Northwest Missouri, 21-14 in the Division II Championship Saturday in Florence, Alabama.  It is the first championship for Minnesota-Duluth.  Northwest Missouri has fallen victim in the last four championship games.

The story of the game was the UMD defense.

Northwest Missouri had only turned the ball over two times in three playoff games this year, but simply did not take care of the football on Saturday.  Minnesota-Duluth forced six fumbles, recovering two, and intercepted two passes.

“We couldn’t get in a rhythm and when we did we turned the ball over,” said Northwest Missouri head coach Mel Tjeerdsma.

It was a game of mistakes for the Bearcats and UMD capitalized.  

After a scoreless first quarter, Minnesota-Duluth took a 7-0 lead into the half when Bulldog quarterback Ted Schlafke hit receiver Tony Doherty on a 38-yard pass with 14 seconds remaining in the half.  It was the culmination of a six play, 75 yard drive that almost didn’t happen.

“I thought about just taking a knee,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Bob Nielson.  “But I looked in (Ted Schlafke’s) eyes and decided to see if we could pick up a quick first town.”

“We were able to do that all year,” said Schlafke, referring to the two-minute offense.

The score proved to be the winning margin in the football game, although it didn’t look like that late in the game.

A five-yard pass from Schlafke to running back Isaac Odim with 6:32 left in the third gave UMD a 14-0 lead, which they extended to 21-0 when Odim found the endzone on the ground again, this time from four yards.  With 13:44 left in the fourth it looked like Minnesota-Duluth had insurmountable lead.

However, Northwest Missouri tried to make a game of it.  

Aldwin Foster-Rettig returned a Schlafke pass 44 yards for a touchdown to make the score 21-7.  

Even then, the Bulldogs did not worry.

“As our offense was coming off the field I looked into their eyes and then turned around and looked at the defense.  There wasn’t any break in our confidence,” said Nielson.

The Bulldogs’ confidence would be tested again.  After picking up one first down on the ensuing possession, Minnesota-Duluth was forced to punt and the Bearcats responded with a 10-play, 85-yard drive that ended with a one-yard pass from quarterback Joel Osborn to receiver Raphael Robinson.

With 1:39 on the clock, Northwest Missouri had a chance to have possession of the football with a chance to drive and tie or win.  However, Northwest’s chance at the comeback ended when the officials ruled that UMD had recovered Tommy Frevert’s onsides kick.  

The Bulldogs ran out the clock and earned the 2008 championship.

Schlafke was held to only 128 yards passing and threw two touchdowns.  Odom had 69 yards rushing for Duluth.   Linebacker Robbie Aurich led the Bulldog defense with 13 tackles and a forced fumble.  

Northwest Missouri actually out gained the Bulldogs 295 yards to 273, with Osborn picking up 182 yards through the air with a touchdown.  Running back LaRon Council had 99 yards rushing for the Bearcats.  Linebacker Willie Horn had 13 tackles with a tackle for loss in a losing effort.

The search for an answer continues for Northwest Missouri.  After winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999, the Bearcats have lost the last four championship games by a total of 19 points.

“We played scared and that’s not the way we play,” said Tjeerdsma.

After finishing 4-7 in 2007, Neilson returned to coach the team after former head coach Bubba Schweigert left to take a defensive coordinator position at Southern Illinois.

Winning the championship might not have seemed realistic to UMD at the beginning of the season, but that wasn’t something that concerned Neilson.

“I don’t know if you even think that far ahead as a coach,” he said.  “The kind of win we had today speaks to the character of this football team.”

The win makes Minnesota-Duluth the third team to finish a season 15-0, joining the 1998 Northwest Missouri Bearcats and the 2006 Grand Valley Lakers.  It is the first championship for a Northern Sun football team.