By: Griffin Nelson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Katie Adams
One should always employ caution when flaunting the term “historic.”
Given the multitude of “firsts” that this game produced for a program on the precipice of prescribed progression, “historic” seems a fitting attribution.
Both MSUM and St. Cloud State University entered play with a record of 7-3. A victory would propel the winning side to the Mineral Water Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Since the bowl’s realignment in 2000, neither MSUM or SCSU has earned a berth.
On senior day, the Dragons prevailed on a last-minute field goal by senior kicker Joe Tjosvold 13-10 against the St. Cloud State Huskies. The bowl bid would spell the first postseason trip for the Dragons since 1994.
Play began at Nemzek Stadium at a cool 17 degrees, with 20 mph gusts blowing from the southeast. The blistering wind and fleets of snow offered a game with massive implications a near mythic mystique, beckoning minds and playbooks backwards a half-century to football’s foundational battles.
“We knew it was going to be really hard to be two-dimensional on offense,” Head Coach Steve Laqua said on how he prepared his team for the cold. “We challenged our kids to battle in the trenches and be gritty.”
After exchanging three-and-outs on their initial drives, SCSU found themselves in favorable field position when Alec Hafferman recovered a fumble by Dragons running back Ty Jochim at the MSUM 43. A 26-yard keeper by SCSU quarterback Dwayne Lawhorn set up a 27-yard field goal for kicker Adam Stage to collect the lone points of the quarter and eventually the half. The brutal weather conditions affected the flow of both teams, as they combined for 159 yards of total offense in the first half.
The second half opened with a glint of offense as both teams found the end zone on their opening drives. The Huskies drove 75 yards, feeding running back Gregory Lewis seven carries including the eventual score from two yards out, increasing their lead to 10-0. Lewis finished the day with 69 yards on 32 attempts and the lone Huskies touchdown.
The Dragons took the ball over at the MSUM 35 with 9:21 on the clock. MSUM quarterback Bryce Meehl finished the drive 4 of 4 for 32 yards, including a pivotal 21-yard strike to receiver Jake Richter to the SCSU 1-yard line on a third and long. Running back Zach Simons took the next snap from the wildcat formation and plunged forward across the goal line to narrow the Huskies’ lead to three points again.
The third quarter ended with a flurry of punts. The Dragons started their opening drive of the fourth quarter at the MSUM 22. Meehl broke the pocket and scrambled for 32 yards to move the ball across midfield, and converted on fourth down to move the Dragons into the red zone. This set up Tjosvold for a 25-yard field goal into the wind that tied the game at 10 with 8:01 left in the game.
After forcing a quick three-and-out, the Dragons took over at their own 46 yard line after a 22-yard punt return by Zach Sweep. MSUM pounded the rock to drain the clock, and converted another fourth and short to move into the red zone. With 1:03 left in the fourth, the Dragons again called on the services of Tjosvold, who kicked it true, and gave MSUM their first lead with 59 seconds left to play.
The Huskies threatened to knot the game up again but, with no timeouts, had to settle for a 51-yard field goal attempt on third and long set up by an intentional grounding penalty. With the wind, the kick had the distance, but wobbled wide left, cementing the game’s fate in the Dragons’ favor, a 13-10 final.
The 13 points was the lowest total in a victory since a 10-0 victory against Wayne State in 2000.
Meehl finished 12 of 18 for 135 yards through the air. Jochim led the Dragons on the ground, providing 48 yards on 11 carries. Richter caught two passes for 46 yards, finishing with 1,052 yards and 10 TD’s on the season.
The Dragons finished the regular season 8-3, their best win total since 1991. They travel to Excelsior Springs, Missouri to partake in the Mineral Water Bowl Saturday, Dec. 1. It is the program’s first postseason appearance since making the transition to NCAA Division II.
In a game so lacking offensive firepower, two practically identical situations stand out as the decisive moments in the matchup.
Twice in the last quarter, the Dragons faced a fourth and two within the SCSU 40. Twice, Meehl dropped back and, instead of looking for a quick three yards, went over the top along the right sideline.
“We took a shot,” Laqua said. “We wanted to give our best players an opportunity to make a play.”
On both occasions, MSUM receivers made an outstanding play to come away with the catch. The first, a diving effort by Sweep, went for 28 yards and put the ball at the SCSU 5, setting up the first of Tjosvold’s field goals. The second came on a successful jump ball attempt by Richter over an SCSU defender, gaining 21 yards and setting up the winning score.
Meehl, who played the game despite dealing with a shoulder issue, had the same full confidence as his head coach.
“Bryce’s performance last week was so heroic,” Laqua said. “I wanted to give him a chance to make a play again. And that’s what he did.”
Kickers are people, too
Exiting the understandably raucous locker room following the victory, kicker Joe Tjosvold stayed mostly quiet.
Passersby congratulated him on his efforts, adding that perhaps the Minnesota Vikings would be calling for his talents. He smiled politely and thanked them. His eyes wore the relief of redemption.
Tjosvold recounted the last time he faced St. Cloud and how different that game had come to pass. Two years ago, Tjosvold missed a 40-yard field goal to force overtime with the Huskies. Today, he buried them.
“That’s been in the back of my head for two years now,” Tjosvold said.
After pushing a 37-yard field goal attempt wide left in the second quarter, the senior provided the game-tying and game-winning kicks in the fourth to secure MSUM’s first victory over SCSU since 1983.
“We worked hard all offseason to become extremely mentally tough,” Tjosvold said. “It feels amazing to do this for my coaches and my teammates.”
“He was big time,” Laqua said of Tjosvold. “We call him ‘Joe Money’ around here, mostly because nobody knows how to say his last name. He was money today when we needed him.”
Extending their careers
Before the game, MSUM honored 13 seniors and their families for their dedication to the football program, on and off the field. Mothers and fathers embraced their children. This game could’ve been the last time many of them ever don a jersey and play football.
But with the win, they’ve secured one last ride.
“It’s exciting to keep this group together,” Laqua said of his senior class. “They went through a tough year last year, and they found a way to scratch some wins together this year. It has everything to do with how much they believe in each other.”
Senior linebacker Michael Strand played an integral role in the front seven’s ability to hold an SCSU attack to just 10 points and a 2.9 yards per carry average. He collected eight tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage, and a forced fumble.
“This win was for all the Dragons before us that paved the way,” Strand said. “This is an opportunity that most before us didn’t receive. This class came in here to change the program and the culture. Now we’re going to a bowl game.”