Minnesota Duluth football coach Curt Wiese addressed his football team during the NCAA Division II football selection show Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, and said, “Get your belt buckles and cowboy hats ready. We’re going to Texas.”

Yes, the Bulldogs are.

UMD (9-2) will play second-seeded Angelo State (9-2) in the first round of the 28-team national tournament at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, in San Angelo, Texas.

This will be the Bulldogs’ 12th NCAA playoff appearance, all since 2002, but it will be their first appearance since 2018, a long time by the standards UMD has set.

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“It feels like a long, long time ago,” said senior wide receiver Johnny McCormick, who is in his sixth year in the program. “It wasn’t an easy decision to come back, but knowing it was with this group made it a lot easier. I knew this group was going to be special.”

Bulldogs linebacker Nate Pearson, a senior from Lake Nebagamon, was asked what he knows about Angelo State, located 250 miles southwest of Dallas.

“I know it’s warm down there,” Pearson said with a smile, “and a lot less snow.”

Yes, San Angelo was sunny and 75 degrees Sunday while Duluth was 31 and cloudy.

Minnesota Duluth head football coach Curt Wiese talks to his players following the NCAA Division II football tournament selection show Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota Duluth head football coach Curt Wiese talks to his players following the NCAA Division II football tournament selection show Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Pearson was asked if he minded playing on the road.

“Oh no, especially not in Texas,” Pearson said, “but at the same time, we know this is a business trip.”

Saturday will be the first meeting between the programs, and there are a lot of unknowns whenever you get into the national playoffs. That’s what makes it fun, according to Wiese. The players and coaches will learn about a new area, just through the experience, while the scouting process starts from scratch. There’s usually no previous body of work to go on. The teams exchange film from the season and that’s about it.

Wiese said he didn’t know anything about Angelo State, having never been there, and didn’t even know where it was. Then he went and googled the location on his phone.

“That’s part of the excitement of the college football playoffs,” Wiese said. “You get to see another part of the country and play another good football team from another conference and learn something about each other in the process.”

Despite a carousel at quarterback this season due to injuries, not to mention bumps and bruises through the lineup and a couple stinging losses to Wayne State and Bemidji State, UMD suddenly finds itself back in a place the Bulldogs feel they belong.

“A lot of the reason we’re here goes back to the maturity of our upperclassmen,” Wiese said. “Those guys have done a good job holding the locker room together and putting us in a position where we haven’t gotten rattled after one or two losses.”

UMD returned nine of 15 seniors from last year who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after COVID-19 wiped the 2020 season, including McCormick and Pearson.

“This is why those guys came back, was to have this opportunity to be in the national playoffs, and it’s important for our program to be in this spot again,” Wiese said. “It’s a lot of work, and some of these guys put off jobs and postponed their lives for a chance to be in the national playoffs and come back and lead our team. I can’t say enough how much we appreciate what those guys have done for our program.”

And the best part is UMD appears to be playing its best football of the season, as Wiese pointed out when he addressed the Bulldogs earlier Sunday, having dismantled Augustana 41-15 on Nov. 6 and outshot Northern State 49-35 on Saturday.

That’s great news considering this region is wide open. Every team has at least one loss and five of the seven have two losses.

Colorado School of Mines (10-1) is the top seed in the seven-team Super Region Four bracket and has a bye. A pair of NSIC schools square off in the first round with Bemidji State (9-2) playing fourth-seeded Augustana (9-2) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Nebraska-Kearney (9-2) plays at third-seeded Western Colorado (10-1) in the other first-round game.

“This is why I came back — to win,” Pearson said. “It’s been three years now of going through COVID, of going through the offseasons, to finally make the playoffs. We’re one of the last 28 teams in the nation, and now we have to go prove it.”

While Wiese has been to Texas, having gone on vacation to South Padre last Christmas, Pearson has never been to Texas.

Pearson said about the closest he’s come to Texas is two trips to Florida, which, of course, isn’t very close.

Pearson said he’s ready to go. When Wiese said get your cowboy hats and belt buckles ready, Pearson was listening. He said he’s got a special belt buckle in mind, a family heirloom given to him from his grandfather, the late Earl Pearson.

“It’s a big ol’ belt buckle, and I’m going to have to break it out for the occasion,” Pearson said with a Texas-sized grin. “It’s exciting. We get another opportunity to win, to play, and we’ve just got to keep this train moving. We’ve got a lot of confidence going into this week, so we’ll see how far we take it.”