Nov. 27, 2009


By Judd Spicer
Special to

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Duluth, Minn. would seem an apt location for the playoff showdown that all of NCAA DII football has long craved.  The Super Region 3 final and national quarterfinal on Saturday pits defending national champion University of Minnesota-Duluth (11-1) versus perennial DII powerhouse Grand Valley State University (11-1).  

The game, which will be played Saturday at 12 p.m. (CT) at James S. Malosky Stadium, is a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, in which GVSU lost, 19-13, in double overtime.

No. 4 Duluth enters the contest as the winner of 27 of its last 28 games, while No. 3 Grand Valley strives to return to the championship game, which it won four times between 2002-2006.  In his six years at the Laker helm, GVSU head coach Chuck Martin has suffered just six losses.

“I remember all of them,” Martin says of his six losses.  “That one [against UMD] is right up there.  Obviously, a playoff loss is different than a regular season loss.  The UMD game ranks right up there with the ’07 semifinal loss to NW Missouri.”

But Martin is quick to deflect vengeance as a motivator for the Lakers.

“We really downplay who we’re playing,” he said. “That’s really a bigger thing for fans and the media.  “I mean, we lost to Hillsdale earlier this year and then we got to play them in the playoffs last week, and everybody wanted to talk about revenge.  But if our kids and coaches need revenge to get them motivated then we don’t have the right guys to get the job done.  Revenge lasts about two plays and then you get hit in the mouth and revenge goes out the window.”

Bulldog coach Bob Nielson is also quick to collar the reprisal factor.

“With this great challenge to play Grand Valley comes great opportunity,” he said. “It’s a game that our guys are very excited about.  Having played them last year, we know what kind of program we’re up against.  We’ve got to play our best football of the year.  We’ve got to do this right.”

Doing the right thing in back-to-back years will no doubt prove a leviathan order for the Bulldogs.  Besides defending GVSU all-time leading rusher James Berezik, Duluth will also have to defend Laker quarterback Brad Iciek, now a three-time finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy awarded to the top player in DII.  In last season’s quarterfinal game, Duluth intercepted Iciek three times, a mark of haughty note considering that prior to that loss, Iciek had only been picked off three times.

 In this, his senior season, Iciek has thrown just two interceptions and is the country’s second-ranked quarterback in pass efficiency with a rating over 176.

“When you face a quality quarterback like Iciek, you’ve got to find some ways to put pressure on him,” Nielson said.  “We can’t let him have a lot of time to sit back in the pocket and make decisions.”

Grand Valley’s staff will be toting the Advil bottle as well in working to stop the nation’s second-best rushing offense, led by D II’s fourth-leading rusher, Bulldog back Issac Odim.  The junior, also a Harlon Hill finalist, has rushed for nearly 1,800 yards on the season and has passed the 100-yard mark in all 12 of Duluth’s games.

“UMD’s backs are big and physical, so we need to match that physicality,” Martin said. “We need to be gap-sound, whether we’re running base defense or pressure.  With a back like Odim, if we’re not in our gaps, he can find it and he can hurt you.”

But while GVSU owns just the nation’s 106th-ranked pass defense, Duluth aims to present a diverse product.  Bulldog quarterback Chase Vogler, who has 10 touchdowns and nearly 1,400 passing yards on the season, is the first true freshman to start behind center for UMD in nearly 50 years.

“We’ve got to have some level of balance,” Nielson said.  “Grand Valley is too good defensively for us to just say we’re going to line up and run the football.  We’ll need to find ways to spread the field and make a few plays on the perimeter that won’t allow them to gang up on the line.”