The Minnesota Duluth football team's biggest defensive loss from last season was the graduation of inside linebacker Beau Bates, but if Saturday was any indication, the Bulldogs will be just fine.
Junior Gus Wedig, Bates' replacement, had a monster game, with eight tackles, including two for loss, tying Sam Lynch with a team-high for stops. UMD fell 26-7 to Sioux Falls in its season opener, snapping the Bulldogs' school-record 22-game home winning streak, but the defense was sound, with senior free safety Kegan Wirtz forcing three fumbles.
"Our defense played phenomenal," UMD coach Curt Wiese said. "They created turnovers, they had their backs against the wall, they played on short fields, they were on the field a lot, but like every season, you can't point fingers. It's a three-phase game, and all three have to click to win games."
One of Sioux Falls' scores came on a fumble return for a touchdown to open the game, and another came shortly after UMD fumbled the football, leaving the Bulldogs' defense pinned deep.
Wedig, of Walworth, Wisconsin, was clearly enjoying the moment, almost too much, with some worrying he might get called for taunting after dropping a Sioux Falls player for a big loss.
"You can't have too much fun playing football, especially when you're a kid from a real small town," Wedig said. "I think it was a really good game, but I'm hoping it can be each week. I'm being put on the outside, where I'm able to gain leverage and crash down on some plays."
At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Wedig looks more like an outside linebacker. Bates was more the inside linebacker prototype at 6-foot, 235, but UMD defensive coordinator John Steger will devise schemes to get playmakers like Wedig free so he can run around and make plays.
Wedig gets a little more freedom to roam.
"We're doing a weird thing with our defense where I'm playing some outside-the-box type stuff," Wedig said. "Coach Steger told me he was going to make me into a safety/outside linebacker/inside linebacker hybrid type thing. I am the 'adjuster,' is what our term is."
Wedig played both inside linebacker positions last year and a little on the outside depending on the defensive package. He started just one game.
"Against Crookston last year, that was it, and the year before, I maybe got 14 snaps a game, if that," Wedig said. "I give full credit to our coaching staff. Without them, I couldn't be where I'm at now. They put me in the right spot to make plays, and I love our defensive line."
Wedig wasn't exactly playing behind chopped liver last year, with five-year veterans in Bates and Ben McDonald at inside linebacker. Bates was the 2016 NSIC defensive player of the year, led all NCAA Division II linebackers with 13 quarterbacks sacks and was UMD's outstanding male senior athlete.
"Beau Bates is the best football player I've ever played with, hands down," Wedig said. "Those are big shoes to fill, and by no means do I think I've gotten there. This was a great start, but I'm not resting on it."
While the defense appeared markedly improved from last year, UMD's offensive sputtered. The Bulldogs rushing attack was nonexistent and sophomore quarterback Mike Rybarczyk sputtered in his starting debut, completing 26 of 50 passes for 228 yards, with no touchdowns, an interception and two fumbles.
The Bulldogs hadn't been held to that few of points at home since 2006, when Augustana thumped them 35-7. It was just UMD's second loss to an NSIC opponent in Duluth in 64 tries going back to October 2000, and it was the third straight year UMD started the season with a loss after winning 15 straight openers prior to that.
"I think this next week in practice we need to give the offense a better look," Wedig said. "Full speed type stuff just so Mike's a little more prepared, so it's not such an adjustment come game time. We have a great receiving corps, and there is no doubt in my mind that Mike is a great quarterback. It was his first game, under the lights against a very good football team. That's a tough way for anyone to start, and Mike handled it the best he could."
Wedig admitted last year was tough defensively.
"Last year with our defense, we kind of felt like a split team," Wedig said. "We were pointing fingers and everything, so we've made it a point of emphasis this year. From fall camp, right from the jump, even the redshirt guys, we're trying to make this a family-type team. We're all in this together."
The Bulldogs gave up a school-record 33.1 points per game last season but still managed to go 10-2 as the offense averaged 45.1 points, second best in program history. Wedig hasn't forgotten.
"Last year our defense wasn't great, and our offense had to carry our weight," Wedig said. "Games like this, if we have to carry the offense, we need to be able to provide that, because we owe our dues for last year, for sure."
This article is written by Jon Nowacki from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.