Saturday’s college ‘battle of the unbeatens’ an MIAC surprise

Update: Carleton beat Augsburg 49-41 Saturday in a battle of unbeatens in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

NORTHFIELD – The orange, yellow and burgundy colors of autumn leaves around the Carleton College campus dazzle a lot more than the prized object in head football coach Kurt Ramler’s office.

On top of a bookcase rests the Goat Trophy, which goes to the winner of Carleton‘s annual Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game with crosstown rival St. Olaf.

Calling it a “trophy” is a stretch. It’s a slab of wood shaped like an oversized cutting board, painted mustard yellow, green and white, with an image of a seated goat with its front legs up alongside its head. Frankly, the goat appears exasperated, as if it’s been waiting an hour for a tow truck.

“It’s ugly,” said cornerback Kane Bechstein, a senior from Apple Valley. “It’s goofy. And it’s awesome.”

In one of the cooler MIAC traditions, the Carleton-St. Olaf winner – which, last Saturday, was Carleton, for the first time since 1996 – walks the trophy to the tiny Northfield town square, kitty-corner from the post office and the First National Bank. Players climb the Civil War memorial and turn the eagle at the top (it’s on a stone ball) toward the winning campus.

The walk from the St. Olaf campus, where the Knights won, 21-7, to the square is about a mile. Carleton hadn’t won in so many years that Bechstein joked somebody had to MapQuest the directions. But it gave the surprising Knights their first 4-0 start since 1992 and sets up Saturday’s Homecoming game at Laird Stadium with the only other overall undefeated team left in the MIAC. Surprisingly, that’s not St. John’s, or Bethel, or Concordia.

Nope, it’s Augsburg, which itself hasn’t been 4-0 since 1973. Coach Frank Haege’s crew is the highest-ranked MIAC team in the two major Division III polls, No. 22 by D3Football.com, and No. 23 by the American Football Coaches Association. Carleton received votes in both polls without cracking the top 25.

That’s quite a jump for both programs. Carleton won seven games in Ramler’s first two seasons, and Augsburg went 2-18 over the 2005 and ’06 seasons under Haege before improving to 5-5 last year. Carleton last had a winning season in 1993, and Augsburg in 1999. 

“The only people who weren’t surprised were probably Augsburg and us,” Ramler said.

And it shows the balance of the MIAC this year. Perennial powerhouse St. John’s is 3-2, with both losses in conference play. Carleton has already beaten Bethel, ranked No. 13 nationally at the time. Augsburg also upset a nationally ranked team in a non-conference game, No. 20 Wartburg (Iowa), 30-24 in two overtimes. Carleton and Augsburg have never played this meaningful a game against each other since Carleton entered the MIAC in 1983.

Given the backgrounds of the coaches, it’s not surprising that each team relies on a dynamic passing game. Ramler started three seasons at quarterback for the legendary John Gagliardi at St. John’s, winning the MIAC Most Valuable Player Award in 1996. (Ramler is a bit of a character. He prefers flip-flops to shoes off the practice field, and calls his players “dudes.”)   

Haege coached for 10 seasons in the Arena Football League and its minor-league affiliate, Arena Football 2, five as a head coach. Haege had been the Auggies’ offensive coordinator in 1998, when wideout Scott Hvistendahl broke Jerry Rice’s career NCAA all-divisions record for receiving yardage (since broken again), and Augsburg averaged nearly 400 yards total offense per game.     

“It’s not a coincidence at all,” Haege said. “You are where you’ve been, I guess. We’re both offensive-minded coaches with offensive-minded teams.”

Augsburg quarterback Jordan Berg, a senior from Gaylord who directs the four-wideout spread offense, leads Division III with nearly 31 completions per game. Though not quite halfway through his third season (he transferred from Minnesota-Duluth), Berg already holds school career records for passing yardage, completions and touchdowns. Senior wideout Royce Winford of Brooklyn Park, who doubles as a cornerback, has 39 catches and eight touchdowns in four games; he trails only Hvistendahl on the Auggies’ career receiving list.

For Carleton, quarterback Shane Henfling of Watkins ranks 10th in the Division III passer ratings, and receivers Chris Gardner of Gaylord (Berg’s former teammate at Sibley East High) and Matt Frank of Caledonia each average more than 100 yards per game in the Knights’ shotgun offense. All are seniors. Ramler described Henfling this way: “He’s slow as molasses, and he’ll tell you he’s not really athletic, but he’s a good quarterback. He throws the ball, on time, to where it’s supposed to go.”

No matter what happens Saturday, Haege is throwing a party at his house in south Minneapolis on Saturday night. It’s his 40th birthday. A few months ago, Haege bought himself a Fender electric guitar, intending to learn to play one song with the band that will perform at the party. But being a football coach, Haege never had time to practice, although the black-and-white guitar still rests on an upright stand in his office.

It’s a much slicker-looking conversation piece than the Goat Trophy. Ramler, naturally, views the goat through a personal prism, a major accomplishment in rebuilding the Knights’ program. “It’s my first time seeing it,” he said. “and I think it’s beautiful.”

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