Laqua believed clock wasn't going to strike midnight on Dragons
The Minnesota State Moorhead football team earned a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1994.
MOORHEAD - A sense of calm washed over Minnesota State Moorhead head football coach Steve Laqua last Saturday, even though his team was clinging to a three-point lead in the four quarter and vying for an elusive postseason spot.
"I believed that the shoe wasn't going to fall off of Cinderella and it wasn't going to strike midnight," Laqua said.
His poise was well placed.
Dragons senior kicker Joe Tjosvold booted a 24-yard field goal in blustery, snowy conditions with 59 seconds to play in the fourth quarter at Scheels Field at Alex Nemzek Stadium. MSUM then stymied St. Cloud State on a drive in the closing seconds to edge the Huskies for a 13-10 victory to close out the regular season.
"It's that next step we needed to take as a program," Dragons senior safety Aaron Doan said.
The Dragons (8-3) claimed a spot in the Mineral Water Bowl with the victory, representing the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
MSUM, which hasn't played in the postseason since 1994, made the bowl games since it is the highest-seeded team from the NSIC that didn't qualify for the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Dragons play the Missouri S&T Miners at noon, Dec. 1, in Excelsior Springs, Mo., at Tiger Stadium. Missouri S&T (9-2) is from the Great Lakes Valley Conference and located in Rolla, Mo.
"I think it's huge for our program to be playing in the postseason," Laqua said. "To be able to extend (our season) another three weeks is big."
The eight wins are the most for the Dragons since 1991 when the team made the NAIA playoffs and posted a 10-2 mark. In 1994, MSUM made the NAIA playoffs and finished with a 7-3-1 mark.
"Eight wins is another step in the right direction," said Laqua, in his seventh season as MSUM head coach. "I'm happy for the players in the program because they did what so many people didn't think they could do."
The Dragons were picked to finish 10th in the 16-team NSIC in the preseason coaches poll. The victory against St. Cloud State to close out the regular season marked the first time MSUM defeated the Huskies since 1983.
St. Cloud State had won 11 consecutive games in the series heading into Saturday's game.
The Huskies took a 10-0 lead with 9 minutes 21 seconds to play in the third quarter on a snow-covered Scheels Field with a game-time temperature in the high teens.
"I thought the character of our kids really shone through that they didn't get rattled. They believed in each other," Laqua said. "We practiced a lot of days in spring ball out on that field in single-digit weather, so it wasn't a foreign situation for them."
The Dragons won four games this season by six points or less, including the three-point win against the Huskies. St. Cloud State drove inside the Dragons 30-yard line on its final drive Saturday, but missed a 51-yard field goal attempt with 7 seconds remaining.
"I felt like this team, we were poised," Laqua said. "We've been making plays defensively all game. I really believed that we were going to finish it out."
Laqua got choked up during an on-field postgame interview comments moments after the game ended.
"The growth of our entire team over the year, it's been unreal to watch," said Doan, who leads the team with 86 tackles. "The future of the program, it just looks good right now. We continue to move forward. ... We wanted to continue to take steps forward."
The Dragons bounced back from a 5-6 record in 2017, which the team considered a disappointment after posting a 7-4 mark in 2016.
"You could easily say that last year's team was more talented than this year's team," Doan said.
"There's a level of chemistry, grittiness, that plays a part in wins and losses," Laqua added. "I think this team fully bought into that."
Doan said co-defensive coordinators Carlton Littlejohn and Joey Blackmore played a key role in MSUM getting better defense in close games this season. Both Littlejohn and Blackmore are former North Dakota State football players who played on national championship teams.
Littlejohn was a standout linebacker for the Bison and played on four NCAA Division I FCS national title teams.
"Those guys, they know what they're doing," Doan said. "There's a reason they won national championships at NDSU. They've just instilled confidence in our defense. They are completely confident in us."
What: Minnesota State Moorhead vs. Missouri S&T
When: Noon, Saturday, Dec. 1
Where: Excelsior Springs, Mo., Mineral Water Bowl