Fargo

The playing surface at Toomey Field in Davis, Calif., was in rough enough shape in early December 1982 that local sports columnist Bob Dunning penned a wonderfully sarcastic piece about the home field of UC Davis' football team titled, "Death of a Friend."

"Toomey Field, a longtime friend of Aggie athletics, died early Friday morning on the Davis campus after a long illness," Dunning wrote. "He was 33."

"Field was home at the time of his death, and is reported to have gone peacefully. Weeklong efforts to revive the ailing giant failed, and a team of physicians, technicians, magicians and morticians removed all life-support systems shortly before midnight, Thursday."

And on it went, with Dunning lamenting the loss of the Aggies' home field after heavy rains and a UC Davis game against Northern Michigan decimated the grass at Toomey Field. There were patches of mud over large areas of the field.

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Dunning's column ran in the Dec. 3 edition of the Davis Enterprise, one day before the Aggies were scheduled to play North Dakota State in an NCAA Division II playoff semifinal. The field was in such bad condition that Davis, one of the leading agricultural schools in the country, built a temporary see-through plastic dome over the field in hopes some of the water would evaporate.

It didn't.

"The administration panicked," said Dunning, who still writes for the Davis newspaper. "The game was going to be televised and they thought, 'This is going to be really bad for recruiting and the image of the university.' So they went out and painted the mud green. True story."

It is just part of a wild couple of days involving the first time the Bison and Aggies played, a game won by Davis 19-14 even after it lost NFL-bound quarterback Ken O'Brien during the game to a leg injury.

NDSU was angry the game wasn't in Fargo. Bison head coach Don Morton called the field conditions "a tragedy" and Davis won a thriller by thwarting NDSU on fourth down at the Aggies' 7-yard-line as time expired.

If Saturday's matchup between the Bison, currently the No. 1-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, and fourth-ranked Davis is half as spicy and entertaining, the nearly 19,000 fans expected to be in attendance are in for a treat.

The 1982 season was at the beginning of NDSU's dominant Division II run of that decade. The Bison were national runners-up the year before and were ranked second going into the '82 playoffs. After beating Virginia Union in the quarterfinals, with the help of a controversial inadvertent whistle, NDSU expected to host Davis for the semifinals at Dacotah Field.

But, as Dunning recalled this week, the NCAA always awarded Davis home playoff games because, well, it's located in California.

(Listen to Mike McFeely's conversation with Davis Enterprise sportswriter Bob Dunning in this podcast:)

The snub was bad enough since NDSU wanted to bring the California team to frigid Fargo in December, but it was made worse by the condition of Toomey Field.

"I think it's a tragedy that the NCAA would play a semifinal playoff game on a field like this," Morton told The Forum, keeping things in perspective like all football coaches. "It's not fair to the players on either team. I'm sure Cal-Davis is embarrassed. The NCAA blew it."

Morton wasn't done. Davis' quarterfinal game the week prior was played in soupy fog on a mucky field, so the Bison coach thought the NCAA should've adjusted its thinking before giving another game to the California school.

"Why didn't they make a change after they saw the condition of the field after last Saturday's game?" Morton asked. "What are the priorities? Sure, climate is a factor. But shouldn't playing conditions be considered? It could be 40 degrees tomorrow in Fargo and we have artificial turf.

"We want to showcase Division II football and they come up with something like this. We're on national television but it won't look very professional."

Las Vegas gamblers pegged Davis as 7.5-point favorites, and they weren't far off. O'Brien, taken in the first round of the NFL Draft the following spring by the New York Jets (1983 was the Year of the Quarterback, with six taken in the first round of the draft including John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly), had two short touchdown runs in the first half as the Aggies took a 13-7 halftime lead.

O'Brien had another short TD in the third quarter and Davis led 19-7 before the Bison answered with a 13-yard scoring run by Jeff Willis early in the fourth quarter.

From there, the game went to the final seconds. Trailing 19-14, the Bison took possession with 5:29 left in the fourth quarter and drove to the Davis 7. With six seconds remaining, NDSU quarterback Mark Nellermoe passed incomplete to Mark Luedtke in the end zone.

Even that was controversial for the Bison.

"I felt there was contact with my legs," Luedtke told The Forum after the game. "Whether it was interference, that's not for me to call."

"I thought it was interference from our standpoint," Morton said. "But games aren't won or lost on one play."

The key stat of the game might've been the 150 yards rushing for the Bison. That was 100 yards below their season average.

"Our lack of passing finally caught up with us in the Cal-Davis game," Morton told The Forum later. "We just did not have momentum coming into the game."

Davis went on to lose in the championship game to Southwest Texas State, the same team that beat NDSU in the 1981 title game. Southwest Texas State was coached by Jim Wacker, who was the Bison coach from 1976-78.

Saturday's game at the Fargodome could go a long way toward determining whether NDSU or Davis advances deep into the playoffs in 2019.

And Dunning, who will travel to Fargo to cover the game for the Enterprise, will have to save his sarcasm for something other than field conditions.