Almost: The Cardinals took the defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs into overtime, but fell just short in a 30-27 defeat

A snowy playoff matchup that featured big plays, big hits and a controversial overtime finish, Saturday’s game had all the elements of an instant  classic.

The Valley Vanguard

Vanguard Photo | Lisa Coffell

Sophomore wide receiver Jeff Janis pulls in his third touchdown catch of the day in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s overtime playoff loss to Minnesota Duluth. Janis had a career-high 176 yards in the game.

The only thing missing for SVSU was a win.

The Cardinals’ season ended Saturday with a 30-27 overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.

“It was an exciting game – just what you want out of a playoff game – but unfortunately we didn’t get it done,” said head coach Jim Collins.

But SVSU couldn’t have come closer to getting it done: After a slow start, the Cardinals rallied from being down 10 points at halftime  to send the game into overtime on the foot of freshman kicker Scott Stanford.

The Cardinals scored on their first possession in overtime, but the play was called back because of a controversial offensive pass interference call on SVSU. The Cardinals were forced to settle for a field goal, and Minnesota-Duluth punched the ball in on its first overtime possession to clinch the win.

“I like the way our guys competed today; they played hard, and they never gave up,” Collins said. “They competed for sixty minutes plus.”

SVSU was led by sophomore wide receiver Jeff Janis, who had a career day with 179 yards receiving and three touchdowns, including two for more than 60 yards.

“He’s had a great year,” Collins said. “He’s a big, fast guy, and he’s an easy target to hit. He makes plays with the ball in his hands.”

The Valley Vanguard

Vanguard photo | Lisa Coffell

Senior wide receiver Nick Gallina turns upfield late in Saturday’s loss. Gallina had five receptions for 51 yards in his final game as a Cardinal.

The SVSU offense struggled early in what started out as a blustery, messy game. With the snow and cold temperature hampering the pass game, SVSU attempted to rely on the ground game, but was met with a resilient Bulldog rush defense.

“They are a tough team to run on,” Collins said. “We went into the game with running as part of the plan, but it wasn’t as successful as we hoped it to be, so went to plan B, which was (to) throw it more.”

“It was kind of tough (to throw the ball),” said sophomore quarterback Jonathon Jennings. “It was obviously cold outside, but we just had to work with it.”

The Cardinals’ persistence paid off when Jennings hit Janis on a 72-yard pass play in the second quarter. Janis caught the ball on a short slant, evaded one defender, followed his blockers and then sprinted past the entire UMD defense for the score.

“He was a big player for them today,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Bob Nielson. “When you catch a crossing route five yards from the line of scrimmage and take it the distance, that’s a heck of an individual play.”

The Bulldogs responded with 10 straight points,  carrying a 21-7 lead into halftime.

Both teams traded off punts to start the half, but Jennings hit Janis on the same play for another score, this one going for 65 yards. Janis’ three touchdowns in the game were his twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth of the year.

The Valley Vanguard

Vanguard photo | Lisa Coffell

Freshman kicker Scott Stanford lines up to kick a 42-yard field goal during the Cardinals’ first possession in overtime Saturday. Stanford made the kick to put SVSU up by three, but Minnesota-Duluth scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to clinch the first round NCAA playoff win over SVSU.

“I found (that route) open few times,” Janis said. “We knew all we had to do was make one move to make the defense miss because they tackled low, so that’s all I did.”

The 6-foot-3-inch Janis created problems for the Bulldogs the entire game, with his size and strength causing fits for the Minnesota-Duluth secondary.

“They did play a little of cover two (defense) rather than just one-on-one coverage,” Collins said. “That was the adjustment that we saw a little bit, but not on every down.”

Those adjustments couldn’t stop Janis from scoring a third time, early in the fourth quarter, as he caught a 22-yard pass in the end zone to give the Cardinals a 21-17 lead, their first of the  game.

The SVSU defense fed off the momentum that Janis and the offense created. After allowing 172 yards rushing on 33 carries (allowing a 5.2 yards per carry average) in the first half, the Cardinals defense let up only 88 yards on 28 carries in the second half (3.1 yards per carry).

“When the offense started making some plays, I think it created a little bit of momentum and excitement for our defense, and we kind of fed off each other in that second half,” Collins said. “That’s really what we’ve done all year.”

The defense was led by junior defensive back Darius Middlebrooks, who tallied 21 tackles in the game. Middlebrooks picked up the slack for a defense that was missing several of its key players, including junior linebacker Grant Caserta, a first-team all-GLIAC selection.

“I was just trying to fly around and make plays for my team,” Middlebrooks said. “We just tried to buckle down and come together as a unit. We tried to do a lot of communication and talk about what we saw out there.”

Despite the Cardinals’ adjustments, they allowed a rushing touchdown to the Bulldogs with just over eight minutes left in the game to go behind 24-21. The Bulldogs rushed for 275 yards and threw for only 84 in the game, scoring all four of their touchdowns on the ground.

That score held until the final eight seconds of the game, when freshman kicker Scott Stanford hit a 21-yard field goal to force overtime.

SVSU received the ball first in overtime and scored right away on a pass to senior wide receiver Nick Gallina, but the play was called back when offensive pass interference was called in the area of Gallina and Janis.

Collins said that he had no comment on the call, saying that he was “not sure what was called.”

The penalty hurt the Cardinals, forcing them to settle for another field goal from Stanford, this one a 42 yarder. The defense gave up a big play to Minnesota-Duluth on the following possession, and could not stop the Bulldogs from punching the ball in on their first overtime drive to clinch the win.

“We just didn’t make the plays,” Jennings said. “We had a penalty called when we scored that put us in bad position. We were in third and long, and we just really didn’t get it done.”

Jennings finished the game with 324 yards on 18 for 24 passing. In his first full season as a starter, the true sophomore passed for 2,924 yards, throwing 29 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Jennings also added seven touchdowns and 416 yards on the ground.

With the win, Minnesota-Duluth moves on to the second round of the NCAA playoffs, where it will travel to the undefeated No.1 seed in the region, Colorado State-Pueblo.

The Cardinals end their season with an overall record of 7-4. Despite the early playoff exit, Collins said that he is proud of what his team accomplished this year.

“When we started the season, our goal was to win a national championship, and we fell short of that,” Collins said. “But I’m really proud of the way we played all season long and the leadership we had.”

Both teams traded off punts to start the half, but Jennings hit Janis on the same play for another score, this one going for 65 yards. Janis’ three touchdowns in the game were his twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth of the year.

“I found (that route) open few times,” Janis said. “We knew all we had to do was make one move to make the defense miss because they tackled low, so that’s all I did.”

The 6-foot-3-inch Janis created problems for the Bulldogs the entire game, with his size and strength causing fits for the Minnesota-Duluth secondary.

“They did play a little of cover two (defense) rather than just one-on-one coverage,” Collins said. “That was the adjustment that we saw a little bit, but not on every down.”

Those adjustments couldn’t stop Janis from scoring a third time, early in the fourth quarter, as he caught a 22-yard pass in the end zone to give the Cardinals a 21-17 lead, their first of the  game.

The SVSU defense fed off the momentum that Janis and the offense created. After allowing 172 yards rushing on 33 carries (allowing a 5.2 yards per carry average) in the first half, the Cardinals defense let up only 88 yards on 28 carries in the second half (3.1 yards per carry).

“When the offense started making some plays, I think it created a little bit of momentum and excitement for our defense, and we kind of fed off each other in that second half,” Collins said. “That’s really what we’ve done all year.”

The defense was led by junior defensive back Darius Middlebrooks, who tallied 21 tackles in the game. Middlebrooks picked up the slack for a defense that was missing several of its key players, including junior linebacker Grant Caserta, a first-team all-GLIAC selection.

“I was just trying to fly around and make plays for my team,” Middlebrooks said. “We just tried to buckle down and come together as a unit. We tried to do a lot of communication and talk about what we saw out there.”

Despite the Cardinals’ adjustments, they allowed a rushing touchdown to the Bulldogs with just over eight minutes left in the game to go behind 24-21. The Bulldogs rushed for 275 yards and threw for only 84 in the game, scoring all four of their touchdowns on the ground.

That score held until the final eight seconds of the game, when Stanford hit a 21-yard field goal to force overtime.

SVSU received the ball first in overtime and scored right away on a pass to senior wide receiver Nick Gallina, but the play was called back when offensive pass interference was called in the area of Gallina and Janis.

Collins said that he had no comment on the call.

The penalty hurt the Cardinals, forcing them to settle for another field goal from Stanford, this one a 42 yarder. The defense gave up a big play to Minnesota-Duluth on the following possession, and could not stop the Bulldogs from punching the ball in on their first overtime drive to clinch the win.

“We just didn’t make the plays,” Jennings said. “We had a penalty called when we scored that put us in bad position. We were in third and long, and we just really didn’t get it done.”

Jennings finished the game with 324 yards on 18 for 24 passing. In his first full season as a starter, the true sophomore passed for 2,924 yards, throwing 29 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Jennings also added seven touchdowns and 416 yards on the ground.

With the win, Minnesota-Duluth moves on to the second round of the NCAA playoffs, where it will travel to the undefeated No.1 seed in the region, Colorado State-Pueblo.

The Cardinals end their season with an overall record of 7-4. Despite the early playoff exit, Collins said that he is proud of what his team accomplished this year.

“When we started the season, our goal was to win a national championship, and we fell short of that,” Collins said. “But I’m really proud of the way we played all season long and the leadership we had.”

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