Jerome Berg was born eight years after the worst pandemic of the 20th Century, the 1918 Spanish Flu. He was to the city and college of Mayville what North Dakota State is to FCS football: An institution.
In true spirit of the man who Mayville State named its field after, the Comets pulled off something that not many colleges and universities did on Saturday. They played college football.
“You’re mostly just focused on playing but throughout the week you think, I’m just grateful to be playing football when a lot of people can’t,” said Comets quarterback Creighton Pfau, a West Fargo High School graduate. “It’s my senior year and if I would have lost my senior year that would have hurt. And I know that happened to a lot of people.”
A couple large motor homes, a few tents and tailgating was back in the Red River Valley.
The hillside that rings the stadium made for an ideal social distancing platform. But there were a couple of things seemingly out of the Comets’ control: The pandemic and the schedule. Waldorf University (Iowa) beat Mayville 63-0 last season.
But when Pfau hooked up with wide receiver Maalik Flowers for a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-3 late in the first quarter, the crowd rejoiced and the Comets had hope down just one score.
It was a valiant effort all day, but the Comets ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and Waldorf left with a 50-40 victory.
“Obviously we’re a completely different team than last year,” Pfau said. “I think everyone has a couple plays they'd like to have back, but I’m proud of everyone’s effort. We’ll build on this.”
MSU went 2-8 last season, but welcomed new head coach Rocky Larson last February. When he was hired, the coronavirus was brewing in other countries but not many people had any idea the impact it would have in the United States.
In Mayville, the university found success with every step leading to Saturday. It started with the NAIA giving autonomy to leagues to determine their own course of action, in this case the North Star Athletic Association.
Athletic directors and presidents of the North Star met at least twice a week, said MSU athletic director Ryan Hall. Every Comet student-athlete was tested upon arrival on campus and testing has been constant since.
The school had two athletes test positive. There are quarantine and isolation rooms on campus.
“We had a lot of obstacles, to be quite frank,” Hall said about an hour before kickoff.
He was asked if he’ll be able to take a deep breath when the game started.
“I think so, I think so,” he repeated. “When the whistle blows, it’s going to be awesome to have some football."
Berg Field was capped at 50% of capacity. Traill County was at a blue (and lowest) threat level and was given the OK for more fans, but Hall said the university took the safe route and operated at a green level, which is one above blue.
After a rough first few minutes, the Comets football team operated at an upset level.
Max Cooper’s 27-yard field goal with less than four minutes left in the first half brought MSU within 14-10. It was also evident Pfau was getting more comfortable with his offense.
The Warriors, however, went 85 yards in nine plays and Taylen Alexander’s five-yard touchdown pass with 48 seconds left in the half made it 21-10.
Still, unlike the Waldorf rout last year, it was a game at halftime. It was homecoming last year at Berg Field.
This was another homecoming of sorts in the Red River Valley.
Welcome back, college football.
Pfau’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Roundtree with 12:21 left in the third quarter made it 21-16. If the Comets were going to win this game, they needed Pfau and his receivers to continue to make big plays like Roundtree, a 6-2 freshman from Lawrenceville, Ga., and the same high school as NDSU running back Kobe Johnson.
“He is special, we have some receivers who can flat-out run,” Larson said. “We made it known today that we may not be the doormat in this league forever. We’re going to continue to fight and continue to get better.”
Pfau’s one-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal late in the third quarter to the tight end Cooper cut the Warrior lead to 28-23. Cooper’s field goal early in the fourth quarter made it 28-26.
“Our kids played hard and we wanted to make it a close game in the fourth quarter,” Larson said. “We did that.”
Pfau-to-Roundtree struck again with nine minutes remaining, connecting on a 79-yard touchdown play. Waldorf led 35-33.
The upset didn’t happen, however.
College football did.
“What an awesome atmosphere,” Larson said. “This is college football Saturday. What a great day.”