Talent, schedule puts UMD in favorite role

John Gilbert

The grandstand was empty but the field was full as UMD’s football team opened practice by hustling among several drill stations during Tuesday’s first day of practice. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The grandstand was empty but the field was full as UMD’s football team opened practice by hustling among several drill stations during Tuesday’s first day of practice. Photo credit: John Gilbert

UMD football fans have gotten spoiled in recent years, getting accustomed to their Bulldogs winning their division of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, and going on to post-season play.

Here’s a tip for the upcoming 2018 NSIC season: UMD will win their division again this fall, and advance to post-season playoffs.

You read it here first. And it’s not arrogance or being spoiled, it’s merely an objective analysis of the numbers. All the numbers point in that direction. 

Sure, the Bulldogs suffered a few key losses from last season’s 9-3 team, which won the north division at 7-0, but lost the opening two interdivisional games and the Mineral Water Bowl after the season. One of the key personnel losses was easily overcome. Senior wide receiver Nate Ricci’s season ended after only three games because of an injury. But Ricci, who red-shirted as a freshman, was given a medical red-shirt, granting him a do-over senior year as a rare sixth-year senior. Ricci broadens the pass-receiving corps, which leaves the biggest question of which of four quarterbacks will throw the ball.

Three experienced quarterbacks return, all with significant playing time last seaons, and a fourth who showed great promise in spring drills after red-shirting as a freshman last fall, makes the Bulldogs armed and dangerous at QB.

In fact, the obvious strength of such depth at quarterback is only mitigated by the challenge of picking the right one on any given Saturday. Coach Curt Wiese is playing that to the hilt, delaying his opening-game decision as long as possible to gather more evidence.

“We’ve got open competition at quarterback with three returnees,” Wiese said. “I know all three can lead the team, all three can make the throws, and it will come down to executing our offense. That’s one spot where you can’t afford to be thin, and we’ll just let it play out.”

A year ago, Mike Rybarczyk won the starting nod, but he was injured two games in. Ben Everhart took over to start four straight games before injuries forced him out. Freshman John Larson took the helm and impressively took charge. After four starts,  Larson, too, got knocked out. Everhart started the final regular-season game, his fifth start of the season, before Larson came back to the helm for the Mineral Water Bowl finale, a 38-28 loss to Central Missouri State.

Bulldog football players went through a pass-coverage drill during the opening practice at Malosky Stadium. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Bulldog football players went through a pass-coverage drill during the opening practice at Malosky Stadium. Photo credit: John Gilbert

In last year’s season stats, Larson and Everhart each started five games. Larson was 95-167 passing, for 1,372 yards and 16 touchdowns; Everhart was 90-154 for 1,259 yards and 8 touchdowns. In rushing yards, Anthony Wood and Austin Sylvester were 1-2, with Larson third, gaining 365 yards and scoring three times, while Everhart was fourth with 173 yards and two touchdowns. Rybarczyk started the first two games, and was 28-60 for 265 yards and one touchdown. 

Sports Information Director Bob Nygaard lists the top 17 returnees for this season on his media day release, and three of them are quarterbacks Everhart, Larson and Rybarczyk.

Expanding the quarterback focus of the coaching staff as practice concludes its first week is that Garrett Olson, who had red-shirted as a freshman, was impressive in spring drills and has thrust himself into the picture, Wiese added.

Wiese insists he deserves no credit for the schedule, which is arranged as if the coach’s magic touch had been applied. “The schedule is done 10 years in advance, and I had nothing to do with it,” said Wiese. But last year the Bulldogs started 1-2 with losses to strong teams from Sioux Falls in the season opener, and Minnesota State-Mankato in Game 3. After that, UMD romped to eight straight victories, including three consecutive shutouts.

This season, by comparison, UMD opens August 30 at Minot State, a team the Bulldogs whipped 37-0 last year, then faces Minnesota State-Moorhead September 8 in the home opener. In fact, UMD doesn’t play either Sioux Falls or Mankato this season.

Last year, the Bulldogs had a shocking tendency to give up large quantities of points, while not scoring enough. Sioux Falls whipped them 26-7 in the opener, and Mankato beat them 38-23. But the Bulldogs were 4-2 in the first six games, while scoring only 154 points and allowing 151. They were 5-1 in the last six games, scoring 239 points and yielding only 71. The defense found its groove — or else the opposition faltered — when they strung together three shutouts, 41-0 over Northern State, 37-0 over Minot State, and 17-0 over Bemidji State.

That makes the emphasis simple this year: Score more and give up less. 

“We want to get off to a strong start, and to do that, our objective is to win our first game,” Wiese added. “We’re expecting a tough game at Minot.”    

Whichever quarterback gets the opening nod, he will have the bonus of Ricci, one of five captains. He joins fellow wide-receiver Jason Balts, center Jason Anderson, linebacker A.J. Naatz, and defensive back Mitchell Martin-Johnson.

UMD lost 27 players from last year, including four offensive starters and five defensive starters. Seven offensive starters and six defensive starters return, along with two punters/placekickers, which gives the coaches a good starting point.

“We’re all excited that camp is here,” said Balt, at Monday’s media day. “You can feel the energy.”

Nast, speaking for the defense, said: “I feel priveleged to be picked on top of the north. But we want to see ourselves getting past that. We’re all best friends off the field, and to have so many guys back who went through that consecutive shutout streak helps a lot.”