MOORHEAD – There’s no shortage of entertainment at Minnesota State University Moorhead football games, if offense is your thing.
As for defense, well, how about that offense?
The Dragons and Wayne State (Neb.) spent Thursday night’s season-opener at Alex Nemzek Stadium running up and down the field like Usain Bolt in Rio. The teams combined for 919 yards of offense and 65 points, with the Dragons riding junior quarterback Demetrius and wideout Damon Gibson to a 41-24 victory.
This is how the Dragons win games. They were 6-5 a year ago and averaged 40 points a game in their victories. They averaged a shade less than 20 in the defeats. If MSUM is going to win, it’s going to do so by outscoring teams.
Points and yards are a way of life in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. MSUM averaged 30.1 points and 421.2 total yards per game a year ago, fairly impressive figures. Neither of these totals ranked the Dragons in the upper half of the 16-team NSIC. They were ninth in both categories.
It’s not that MSUM didn’t have a few defensive highlights against the Wildcats. After the Dragons misplayed and muffed a punt in the third quarter and Wayne State recovered at the MSUM 4-yard line, the defense held on two plays and linebacker Aaron Bohl jumped on a fumble at the 1. The Dragons forced and recovered another fumble in the fourth quarter.
And when the Wildcats still held out hope for a second-half comeback, the Dragons made the stops they needed.
“That was big. We made a play with our backs to the wall,” MSUM coach Steve Laqua said of Bohl’s fumble recovery. “We played over 22 guys defensively. That’s a real good sign of our depth. We wouldn’t have been able to do that a few years ago and we probably would’ve lost this game down the stretch because of it.”
The offensive stats were as follows:
The Dragons put up 528 total yards (233 running, 295 passing) on 85 plays. The Wildcats had 391 yards (136 running, 255 passing) on 74 plays.
“Only 24 points on the board and a lot of drives for them, we’ll take that,” Laqua said.
Last year’s winning record was MSUM’s first since 2006. This is Laqua’s sixth year. His first five years were spent building from ground zero. He installed a high-tempo offense that’s led to yards and points, but left the Dragon defense on the field way too much. The result was second-half collapses and fourth-quarter heartbreakers that bordered on epic. Laqua won two games his first year and one his second. That was followed by consecutive 4-7 seasons.
“Defense has been the key for us in recruiting the last few years. We knew we needed depth, not just on defense but on special teams,” he said. “I think that’s finally taking some traction. We redshirted a good group last year and we had a really solid true freshman class that contributed tonight.”
Before you get too excited about MSUM’s prospects, remember the Dragons are still projected to finish 10th in the NSIC. And a victory over Wayne State, predicted to finish 12th in the league, isn’t like knocking off a Minnesota State or Minnesota-Duluth. But there has been marked progress the last three years for MSUM.
MSUM has finally reached the NSIC scholarship limit of 28 (the NCAA Division limit is 36). That doesn’t mean the Dragons are ready to take on the big boys, necessarily. Minnesota State, Augustana, Minnesota-Duluth and Sioux Falls are still the class of the league — particularly MSU, better-known in its old North Central Conference days at Mankato State.
“Depth is certainly a key,” Laqua said. “Those top teams really dominate the offensive and defensive lines and that’s where you have to have real, real depth to make a playoff run.”
The Dragons will be tested over the next month. Three of their next four games are at Sioux Falls, at Minnesota State and at Minnesota-Duluth. Sandwiched in is a home game against Upper Iowa, a contest MSUM should win if it plays well.
So the Dragons did what they had to do against Wayne State. Their quarterback, Carr, can make plays with his feet and arm. He threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Their playmaking receiver, Gibson, can go up and get balls at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Their offensive line established a solid ground game for top back Austin Stone. MSUM finished with 250 rushing yards.
All in all, a successful opening night. Laqua and athletic director Doug Peters are smart to schedule the Dragons for a Thursday night opener. They have the night all to themselves and, with Carr and Gibson making plays all over the field, some of the customers might come back for another taste.
If the Dragons want to reach the upper half of the NSIC, though, they’ll need to have some of the same entertainment value on defense.