Nov. 28, 2009

Sidebar: Climbing The Hill

By Judd Spicer
Special to

DULUTH, Minn. - Sometimes, the first chapter of a story can unfortunately prove the best.

So it can be said for defending DII Football National Champion University of Minnesota-Duluth, who surely wished today that football games lasted 60 seconds instead of 60 minutes.

Harlon Hill Trophy finalist and the nation’s fourth-leading rusher Isaac Odim returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Saturday’s UMD vs. Grand Valley quarterfinal rematch from last season, in which Duluth defeated GVSU 19-13 in two overtimes en route to the school’s first national title. 

But after Odim’s first-chapter fireworks Saturday, the Bulldogs would not see the end zone again in their 24-10 defeat to the No. 3 Lakers at Malosky Stadium in Duluth.

Odim entered the contest with more than 1,700 yards rushing and 26 rushing touchdowns this season, having topped the 100-yad mark in all 12 of No. 4 Duluth’s previous games.  But despite the Duluth back’s touchdown return and 179 UMD rushing yards on the day, the Lakers’ 6th-ranked run defense held the standout back to just 67 yards on the ground en route to their 24-10 victory.  The loss snapped Duluth’s 10-game winning steak and marked only their second defeat in 29 games.

Grand Valley, a winner of four titles between 2002-06, moves on to the national semifinal next Saturday, where they’ll play No. 7 Carson-Newman, 24-21 victors today against North Alabama. The site and time for the matchup is still to be determined.

“They just played really well on defense,” Odim said after the loss.  “They didn’t necessarily throw anything at us that we hadn’t seen before, but they were good players and outplayed us.  When your only touchdown is on a kickoff return, you don’t win games like that.”

Combined with the run-stuffing effort was the Lakers’ ability to intercept Bulldog quarterback Chase Vogler on four occasions, all in Grand Valley territory.  Vogler, the first true freshman to start for Duluth in nearly 50 years, entered the game with just five picks on the season. 

“They were the only team this year, with the exception of maybe Central Washington, that was able to make us throw the football,” Duluth coach Bob Nielson said of Grand Valley. 

Offensively for GVSU, fellow Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Brad Iciek was highly efficient behind center, completing 14-of-27 passes, including two touchdowns, and no interceptions.  Wideout Ryan Bass was Iciek’s favorite target, reeling in a career-high seven catches for 127 yards and one score. 

Fellow receiver Greg Gay caught three balls for 70 yards and a touchdown.  While Duluth was able to keep GVSU’s all-time leading rusher James Berezik in check with 63 yards on 18 carries, Laker back P.T. Gates picked up the ground game with aplomb, gaining 86 yards on 14 rushes and netting a touchdown on a 1-yard score with just under six minutes left in the first quarter.

After an active first half of scoring that found Grand Valley ahead 17-10, the only second-half action came when Gay scored on a 32-yard pass from Iciek with 11:14 remaining in the third quarter.  Queried after the game, Iciek admitted that he experienced frustration in recently watching tape of last year’s loss (in which he was picked three times) and also said that the ’08 defeat to the Bulldogs was fresh in his mind entering the rematch.

“I wanted this one pretty bad; I know our whole team did,” three-time Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Iciek said.  “It was a bad way to end the season last year.  We knew if we played UMD in the playoffs it would be this type of game.  We made adjustments from last year’s game plan, guys executed, the defense gave us short fields. It was a great team victory.”