Minnesota Duluth football coach Curt Wiese was reached by phone Wednesday night and his voice sounded as coarse as E-weight sandpaper.

Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the weary this time of year.

“No, there’s not,” Wiese confirmed.

Yes, this is the proverbial crunch time in the college football season, where the pretenders get separated from the playoff teams, and for the Bulldogs, it sure doesn’t get any easier.

UMD hosts No. 17 Augustana at 1:05 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Malosky Stadium in an NSIC game with both conference and NCAA Division II playoff implications at stake.

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As the lone team with one loss in the 14-team NSIC, Augustana can clinch at least a share of the overall conference title with a win Saturday. The Vikings (8-1) come in ranked No. 2 in the latest Super Region Four rankings that help determine the NCAA Division II playoff field while UMD (7-2) is on the bubble at No. 8.

“We told our team earlier in the week, in Week 10, would you guys take an opportunity to compete for a national playoff bid and a conference championship game, and play in a game that means as much as this,” Wiese said. “Everyone on the field said, ‘absolutely.’ This is a great opportunity and a chance to play in a big-time Division II football game this weekend.”

The biggest problem for UMD this season has been the Bulldogs’ quarterback carousel under center. After an incredible stretch where UMD had four-year starters in Ted Schlafke, Chase Vogler and Drew Bauer, the Bulldogs were perhaps overdue in their good fortune.

UMD has a great one in senior John Larson, but Larson has had difficulty staying healthy throughout his Bulldogs’ career.

Larson has returned from injury this fall but has worn a protective covering over his right elbow and has been used primarily as a runner since the injury.

Logan Graetz, a freshman transfer from North Dakota State, looked good filling in for Larson but he, too, has dealt with injury and was replaced by senior Garrett Olson last week.

Olson, a Minnetonka (Minn.) High School graduate, helped lead UMD to a 34-21 victory at Minot State last week, going 10-for-23 passing for 106 yards while directing a rushing attack that gained 219 yards.

“You’re looking at a possibility of three quarterbacks right now for us,” Wiese said of Saturday’s game. “So hopefully Garrett, Logan and John will all be ready for us. We might be quarterback-by-committee. We’ll find out.

“It makes it tough. It’s tough sometimes as a team moving quarterbacks in and out, but fortunately, those three have all played pretty consistently, and they have our football team behind them. If we play multiple quarterbacks Saturday, I have confidence we won’t miss a beat series to series.”

The injuries under center have forced the Bulldogs to get even more innovative with their offensive scheme.

Vogler, now UMD’s offensive coordinator, has really tapped into the playbook, in particular, with Larson, who has run the ball, thrown the ball, caught the ball, blocked and been used as a tight end.

“Sometimes with injuries it forces your hand a little bit to become a little more creative, multiformational and with your personnel,” Wiese said. “We’ve had quite a few guys out, and a lot of those guys have been on the offensive side of the football. We’re quite a bit different than we were to start the season, but in the same sense it’s provided opportunities for other guys to fill roles they perhaps weren’t slated for at the start of the season.”

Senior fullback/tight end Zach Ojile was among those offensive players injured. Ojile, a captain, suffered a season-ending lower body injury Oct. 2 against Minnesota State-Moorhead. Perhaps no UMD player was more versatile, even Larson.

Augustana is potent offensively

Unlike UMD, Augustana has had leadership and stability at quarterback all season and that’s helped the Vikings average 40.6 points per game, second-best in the 14-team NSIC.

Leading the way is senior quarterback Kyle Saddler, a strong-armed four-year starter who is third in the NSIC with 299.1 passing yards per game, with 32 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. Wide receiver Sean Engel, a 6-foot-5, 202-pound senior, has been his favorite target, catching 46 passes for 787 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Augustana football coach Jerry Olszewski said the Vikings have recruited Texas for about the past six years and with Saddler, a 6-foot, 195-pounder from Frisco, they hit the jackpot.

“We saw Kyle and he got on our board, and we spent the time recruiting him and we’re blessed that he chose Augustana,” Olszewski said.

There’s a lot of talent in Texas, just like an oil pipeline that never runs dry.

“Yeah, there is a lot of talent … more than they need,” Olszewski said, laughing.

The Vikings aren’t one-dimensional offensively, either, as junior Jarod Epperson has rushed for 834 yards and six touchdowns, with his 92.7 rushing yards per game, third-best in the NSIC.

Augustana had 12 seniors last fall, with Saddler being one of eight “super seniors,” as Olszewski called them, who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to come back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was huge,” Olszewski said of the returners. “We’ve had guys who are real impact players, come back for this last season, and we’re awfully thankful they did.”

And nobody bigger than Saddler.

“I think the biggest thing that he grew in was his leadership,” Olszewski said. “I think he really became a fantastic leader. He’s always been a great young man and leader, but he took it to a new level over COVID. He really held the guys together. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen, and there’s very few defenses that will confuse him. He’s getting the football to the right spot, and he gets us in and out stuff really well. Our expectations are really high of him, and so far, he’s answered the bell.”

UMD’s defense will need to do its best to slow Saddler and Co. on Saturday while getting off to a better start finishing drives than last week, when the Bulldogs didn’t score until just before the half.

If they can do that and come away with a victory, you can bet Wiese will be feeling much better, whether he’s still under the weather or not.

“I’m doing alright,” Wiese said, drawing a laugh. “It’s that time of year.”

You’ve got to be kidding

Of all the craziness that has been NSIC football this fall, perhaps nothing was crazier than last week when Wayne State lost 42-41 in overtime at previously winless Upper Iowa (1-7).

Wayne State (6-3) was enjoying a strong season, including a 31-28 win over then No. 11 UMD Sept. 25 at Malosky Stadium, but any hopes of the Wildcats making the Division II playoffs pretty much vanished when the Wildcats’ PAT kick in overtime was blocked by Upper Iowa’s Kyle Domin.

“It’s a tough year to predict, and I don’t have the answers for it,” Wiese said. “Every coach probably across the country right now is wondering why and how. Our league, and college football as a whole, has a lot of parity in it right now. I think everybody in the league has found out, every week you’ve got to be prepared and play well because the NSIC of old is no longer.”

NO. 17 AUGUSTANA AT MINNESOTA DULUTH

What: NSIC football game

When: 1:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Malosky Stadium

Records: Augustana 8-1, UMD 7-2

Forecast: sunshine and clouds mixed, with a chance of rain, high of 56 and 10 to 15 mph wind

TV: My9

Internet: nsicnetwork.com/umdbulldogs

Radio: KDAL 610 AM and 103.9 FM

AUGUSTANA AT MINNESOTA DULUTH

National rankings: Augustana is No. 17 in the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II poll and No. 10 in the d2football.com Top 25 poll; UMD is receiving votes in the AFCA poll.

Regional rankings: Augustana is No. 2 in the Super Region Four rankings that help determine the NCAA Division II playoff field while UMD is No. 8.

Series: UMD leads 10-2, including a 28-17 victory in the last matchup Oct. 6, 2018, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Coaches: Jerry Olszewski is 55-35 in his eight seasons at Augustana, earning NSIC coach of the year honors twice; Curt Wiese is 78-17 in eight seasons at UMD and was the NCAA Division II Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award winner in 2013.

Outlook: Augustana is coming off a 38-20 home victory over Winona State as the Vikings erupted for 21 unanswered points in the third quarter to pull away from a 17-14 halftime lead. Senior quarterback Kyle Saddler was 23-for-35 passing for 271 yards, with four touchdowns to two interceptions, while the Vikings running game, normally one of the better ground games in the NSIC, was effectively bottled up, with 33 carries for just 85 yards. Senior Eli Weber and T.J. Liggett had eight tackles apiece while sophomore defensive back Peyton Buckley had seven tackles and an interception.

“They’ve been really strong offensively all year,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “I think when you look at Augustana’s football team, they don’t have any deficiencies. They’re strong on both sides of the ball and have played really consistent football.”

Despite that, just like every team in the league this fall, the wins haven’t always come easy. Augustanta, after falling 28-26 Oct. 2 to crosstown rival Sioux Falls, the Vikings have won four straight, but they haven’t exactly been blowouts.

“Four weeks in a row we’ve had to grind it out against some pretty good football teams,” Augustana coach Jerry Olszewski said. “Duluth has been the cream of the crop, not only in the North (Division), but in our league for a while now, between them and Mankato.

“Duluth is well coached and has great talent. It’s just a really good program and that’s why they’ve been who they’ve been for the better half of 15 years; just a great tradition; I’ve got a ton of respect for that program.”

UMD is coming off a 34-21 victory at Minot State as senior running backs Wade Sullivan (13 carries, 112 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Cazz Martin (18-92-1) led the way. UMD sophomore kicker Curt Cox was named NSIC special teams player of the week after making field goals of 29 and 39 yards and connecting on his four extra-point attempts.

Junior linebacker Brad Dati continued his monster season with 12 tackles, including two for loss, while also having an interception. Dati now has 15.5 tackles for loss this year, within sight of UMD’s single-season record of 19.5 set by linebacker Russ Rabe in 2003.

Senior defensive back Michael Kirkendoll, meanwhile, added eight tackles and had one of UMD’s four quarterback sacks.

Something will have to give this weekend as UMD leads the NSIC with 29 quarterback sacks while Augustana has done an incredible job protecting the QB, only allowing a league-best four sacks in nine games this season

“Saddler is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, and he seems extremely confident throwing the football right now,” Wiese said. “Augustana has done a really good job protecting him and keeping him healthy. They do a good job getting the ball out of his hands relatively quickly and his offensive line has played consistently all year.”

— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune