MARSHALL - Ask the Southwest Minnesota State football team's players and coaches about their opponent for the 2012 season opener and a lot of the same comments will be uttered.
They're a well-oiled machine.
They don't make mistakes.
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Southwest Minnesota State head football coach Cory Sauter, right, addresses quarterback Tyler Peschong (14) and the rest of the Mustangs’ senior captains as the team goes through its pregame routine during practice Wednesday at Mattke Field at the Regional Event Center.
They're very well-coached.
They're as good as it gets.
The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs have won at least a share of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title each of the last four years since Bob Nielson returned as head coach of the team. In that time, they have a combined record of 52-5 and have won two Division II national championships (2008, 2010).
The Bulldogs enter today's season opener as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. Their opponent went 3-8 last season.
The Mustangs have a great deal of respect for UMD and they know they're not expected to win, but they're not intimidated by playing the best right off the bat.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," said SMSU defensive end Mark Schollmeyer, whose team kicks off with UMD today at 6 p.m. at Mattke Field. "It's exactly how I'd want to start my senior season and I know everyone else on the team is just as ready as I am to get after them."
Schollmeyer is one of the captains of a defense that is trying to redeem itself after a poor season in 2011. The Mustangs and Bulldogs were on two different ends of the spectrum last year in terms of total defense, with UMD ranking seventh in the nation (holding teams to 275 yards per game) and SMSU ranking 141st (468 yards per game).
The Mustangs need to replace six defensive starters from last year's team and they're doing so mostly with young players, but Schollmeyer said he thinks the unit is faster and more athletic than in seasons past.
While there are still question marks for SMSU on the defensive side of the ball, the team's offense remains largely intact and returns all of its top skill position players. Quarterback Tyler Peschong, who led the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in total offense and passing average per game in 2011, is back for his senior year and leads an offense that Nielson knows his team can't take lightly.
"They do a lot of things," Nielson said. "(SMSU head coach Cory) Sauter has done a nice job in terms of building an offense the way he wants his offense to be, which is very diverse and causes you to defend the field in a variety of different formational looks. We've certainly got our hands full this week with the challenge that their offense is going to present."
Nielson's team has five starters to replace on defense, mostly in the linebacking corps and the secondary. The Bulldogs also had a change at defensive coordinator with John Steger taking over after a two-year stint at Southern Illinois, but it shouldn't be much of a change for the team because before joining the Salukis, Steger had coached with Nielson since the 1990s when the two were at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Nielson said the team basically maintained the same defense during the two years Steger was gone.
His defense didn't give up many points or yards last season, but Nielson said he wants to see the Bulldogs be more proactive in forcing turnovers, something he felt they could have done a better job of last season. The team generated just 10 turnovers in 2011, which was last in the conference.
Whether UMD forces turnovers or not, Peschong knows he and his teammates will have to be at their best against the Bulldogs' defense.
"The thing about their defense is it's nothing flashy," Peschong said. "They don't do a lot of crazy things, but they do everything that they do really well.
"They don't miss assignments, they don't miss tackles, so you have to execute flawlessly. Teams are able to move the ball OK on them at times, but then they have the ability to shut you down as well."
Another thing the Bulldogs do well: control the football. UMD led the conference in time of possession last season at 32 minutes, 52 seconds per game. Senior Chase Vogler is a dual threat at quarterback and the team returns experienced running backs who helped the Bulldogs rush for 233.3 yards per game last season.
"We played Duluth a couple years ago in 2009 (a 34-27 UMD win) and I just remember time of possession was heavily in favor of them, and nothing has really changed," said Sauter, who was the offensive coordinator for SMSU that year. "Towards the end of that game I think there were seven or eight minutes left and they just ran the clock out.
"They have the ability to run the football and run the football when everybody knows they're going to run the football. Once they decide to do it, they're tough to stop."
With so much talent and experience returning, the Bulldogs are again the favorite to win the conference and will likely be in the national championship picture as well. But the Mustangs have high expectations of their own.
Despite his team's poor record last season, Peschong said he has doesn't have time to set low goals as he enters his final season wearing the brown and gold.
"This team has the ability to be a playoff team," Peschong said. "You win three games and some people might laugh at that statement, but I truly believe that with all my heart.
"It's a thing that, if we don't get better every day, we're not a playoff team. We have to outwork teams on Saturdays and in practice and in the weight room and in everything we do, and if we're able to do that, I think this is a playoff team, I really do. That's where my goals are at."