By The Associated Press
FLORENCE, Ala. — Delta State is the unranked team peaking at the right time. No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth is the Division II power trying to complete a perfect season and capture its second national championship in three years.
These two seemingly mismatched teams will meet Saturday for the national title at the University of North Alabama’s Braly Municipal Stadium. It’s a small-scale version of would-be BCS busters Boise State or TCU getting a crack at one of major college football’s high-and-mighty.
“The beauty of Division II football is it gives you championship football,” Delta State coach Ron Roberts said. “You have to win it on the field. There isn’t any question about who was ranked highest in October or November, but who’s playing the best football right now. You don’t get to bring your record in, you’ve got to play it on the field. That’s all we want, is just the opportunity to compete for it.”
Delta State (11-3) is the first unranked team to play for a Division II national title and only the third three-loss team to make it this far in 38 championship games. The Delta Devils, who won five games by six points or less in the regular season, have coasted through three playoff games by a combined 56 points.
Minnesota-Duluth (14-0) cruised through the regular season, winning every game by at least 20 points. The playoffs haven’t been nearly so effortless.
The Bulldogs have an overtime win over St. Cloud, beat Augustana 24-13 and rallied for a 17-13 win over Northwest Missouri State.
“Our guys are playing with a lot of confidence, and we’ve been able to find a way,” coach Bob Nielson said. “And those are games that many times leading into a championship, help you in terms of building some confidence.”
Both teams have won on their only previous championship game appearance, Delta State in 2000 and Minnesota-Duluth two years ago. Only three Division II teams have finished 15-0, including that Minnesota-Duluth championship team, Northwest Missouri State (1998) and Grand Valley State (2006).
Roberts doesn’t think facing the No. 1 team will faze his players.
“We’re not intimidated at all,” he said. “We know they’re a very good football team. We know they’re probably the best we’ve seen all year, but we’re not intimidated at all. We’re going to come out and play the best football we can.
“We’re excited about having the opportunity to play somebody who’s 14-0 and wants to run the table. They won an ’08 national championship. All those things, I think as a competitor, that’s got to get your juices flowing.”
Delta State’s defense faces a sizable challenge. The Statesmen rank 97th in Division II in total yards allowed, and one spot higher against the pass and a notch lower against the run.
Minnesota-Duluth is averaging 278 yards on the ground, with backs Brad Foss and Isaac Odim combining for 1,887 yards and 28 touchdowns. Quarterback Chase Vogler has run for 822 yards and seven touchdowns while passing for another 1,795 and 16 scores against just three interceptions. He has a deep threat in receiver D.J. Winfield, who is averaging 22 yards on 45 catches.
The Bulldogs will be facing a defense with 16 first- or second-teamers in their debut season with Delta State, which helps explain why the team has made so many strides as the season progressed.
Florence native Micah Davis has led Delta State’s offense, passing for 3,854 yards and 31 touchdowns. He has also been intercepted 18 times.
Trevar Deed has run for 1,101 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now, the Statesmen find out just how far they’ve come.
“Right now, we’re kind of hot on both sides of the ball,” Davis said. “We’ve done a good job of executing. The defense has done a good job of stopping people. Right now, I guess you could say we’re hot and we’re ready to play.”