By Chris Butler
On the enemy's turf for a home opener against a NAIA team with scholarship players... you would reasonably guess the odds against the University of Minnesota, Morris to be very long indeed.
But the Cougars battled and scraped for four quarters, led by a three-headed monster at quarterback and supported by an adaptable defense that came up with big stops when it mattered most. Throw in a cool-headed punter and what do you get? A 21-20 win over Dakota State in Madison, S.D.
The Cougars host their home opener at noon Saturday against Westminster College at Big Cat Stadium.
The Cougars came into Dakota State, never having beaten the Trojans. The first half left you thinking the last team with the ball would prevail.
UMM received the opening kickoff and took the field with sophomore Ted Hoffman at the helm, one of three quarterbacks to lead the offense for the night. Behind steady gains from running backs Robert Koranda and Ernest Tucker, the Cougars marched down the field, only to stall at the Dakota State 4-yard line after Hoffman was sacked on a fourth and goal.
The defense held the Trojans to a four and out series, and swiftly took the ball back down the field, this time behind freshman quarterback Derrick Foss. With a first down at the DSU 16-yard line, the Cougars were sacked twice and facing a fourth down and 18 yards to go. Rather than kick, head coach Todd Hickman called a sideline fade route for tight end Brady Rose. Foss floated the ball perfectly and Rose ran under it for a 24-yard touchdown pass.
On their next possession, the Trojans came right back down the field behind an even mix of passing and running. Tailback Mike Trimble punched in from one-yard out to tie the game at seven a piece.
Daniel Garrigan, the third head of the QB monster, came in to lead the next drive and, like Foss, engineered a long drive into Dakota State territory. The drive almost ended at the DSU 23-yard line with the Cougars facing 4th down and eight, but Garrigan connected with Jerrod Nohner for a 17-yard gain. Three plays later, Garrigan found Rose for his second touchdown of the night, this time from five yards out.
Undeterred, the Trojans evened the score on the next drive. Running back Drew Allen skirted the left end for a four-yard touchdown run. The teams went into halftime tied at 14.
On the opening drive of the second half, DSU's Trimble cut loose on a 51-yard scamper into UMM territory and then caught a 19-yard pass, bringing the Trojans down to the Cougar 25-yard line. Three plays later quarterback Paul Begala ran in from eight yards out.
The next Cougar drive stalled after seven yards, but Nick Lasserud's punt was fumbled by Dakota State and recovered by freshman special teamer Shannon Cleare-Glover at the DSU 34-yard line.
The Cougars made DSU pay for the error. Three plays later, Foss connected with tight end Nick Laven for a 14-yard touchdown strike.
That's where the fireworks ended.
UMM leading now 21-20, the game shifted into a new, defensive phase.
And then the punter may have saved the game.
After a couple of unsuccessful drives from both teams, the Cougars faced a 4th and 15 on their own 20-yard line with 12:04 remaining. Lasserud dropped into punt formation. The snap came low and rolled by him into the end zone. Lassured chased, scooped the ball up and swiped a side kick over the outstretched fingers of a charging DSU player. The punt, though not pretty, was effective, putting DSU on the UMM 45-yard line from where the defense would hold the Trojans on downs.
On the next couple of drives, the Cougars kept the ball on the ground with Koranda and Tucker but were unable to maintain possession.
With 3:02 to play, DSU got the ball back at their own 49. After a short gain and two incomplete passes, they were faced with a 4th and 10. Begala dropped back to pass and threw over the middle where it was picked off by safety Nate Lund, sealing the game for the Cougars, who ran out the clock after DSU jumped offsides on a 4th and 2.
Statistically, the Cougars did their best work through the air. Hoffman, Foss and Garrigan combined for 23 of 32 passing for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Converting eight of 19 third downs meant UMM held the ball for nearly 39 minutes, a factor which slowed down the potent Trojan offense.
On defense, the secondary held DSU to just 85 yards passing and completion percentage of 47 percent (8 of 17). Lund recorded a team-high nine tackles, while cornerback Shane Fickes and linebacker Adam Gerken had six a piece.
Elizabeth Grave contributed to this report