PUEBLO, Colo. (GoThunderWolves.com - Nov. 26, 2011) - "To be the best, you gotta beat the best" is a tried and true mantra, and Saturday for the ThunderWolves, they came within a field goal of doing just that, standing by as their season ended in a 24-21 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
With the loss, CSU-Pueblo's 15-game win streak is snapped, and their season ends with an 11-1 record.
All game long, the overriding feeling was that the team that would make the least mistakes would win. Saturday, that team was ultimately the Bulldogs, but early on, that was not the case.
Minnesota-Duluth committed three fumbles in the first half - all by quarterback Chase Vogler - but the Bulldogs were able to recover the first two. The first fumble came by way of a high snap, the second on a backward pass that was bobbled by receiver Aaron Roth and resulted in a 9-yard loss.
The third fumble, immediately following the backward pass, was the big mistake for Duluth as another high snap resulted in Corey Orth (Jr., Buena Vista, Colo.) jumping on the ball in the end zone, which gave the Pack a 14-10 lead going into halftime.
In the second half, Duluth jumped back on top with a textbook drive - a 15-play, 67-yard methodical march down the field, that left the Pack defense on its heels. Trailing 17-14, CSU-Pueblo needed to answer with a big drive of its own and did just that.
The Pack marched 80 yards against a 30 MPH wind, getting a few huge plays that kept the drive alive.
In a bold move, Ross Dausin (Jr., San Antonio, Tex.) sprinted behind his left guard on a 4th-and-1 from the CSU-Pueblo 42-yard-line, keeping the train rolling. Three plays later, he hit Josh Sandoval (So., Pueblo, Colo.) for a 29-yard strike, nearly bring the Pack into the red zone. Dausin would finish the job by scrambling 18 yards for the score, putting the Pack ahead 21-17 entering the 4th quarter with a harsh wind at its back.
The fourth quarter began in encouraging fashion for the Pack as Stephan Dickens (So., Aurora, Colo.) picked off Vogler in the end zone with 11:33 remaining in the game, a play that could've been a huge blow to the Bulldogs' chances.
But the Pack simply couldn't convert, going four-and-out, punting to the Bulldogs, who quickly returned the punt for a touchdown - though luckily for the Pack, it was brought back on a clipping call. Undeterred, Duluth quickly marched down the field on a five-play, 49-yard drive that would put the Bulldogs up 24-21 with 8:23 remaining.
Needing a score, the offense couldn't get anything going, mustering only a grand total of 11 yards the rest of the game as time ran out on the Pack's Cinderella season.
"I'm proud of this group of seniors and what they've been able to accomplish," Pack coach John Wristen said. "We didn't want [our season] to end. We played a heck of a football game and we gave it our best."
CSU-Pueblo, playing in its first playoff game since 1982, is now 0-2 in school history in playoff games. Its last appearance, also a home game, was far more one-sided - a 61-20 loss to Central Oklahoma. The Pack's loss marks the latest in a poor showing by Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference teams, which are just 6-21 in the playoffs since becoming a Division II conference in 1992.
"We couldn't be prouder of our guys. We tasted what it tastes like to be in national playoffs, we want to continue to grow and learn from what our experience were."
The loss also ends a wonderful ride for the Pack's outgoing seniors, which signed to the school when the Neta & Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl was literally a hole in the ground back in 2007, preparing for its first season of football in 24 years in the Fall of 2008. After a 4-6 season in 2008, the program's win total steadily rose, from seven in 2009 to nine in 2010 and now 11 wins in 2011.
"We're excited that the future's bright at CSU-Pueblo and it's because of what these seniors have done."