It’s not often that anyone gets to truly participate in a national championship game, but Merrill native Joe Akey found himself in just that situation last Saturday.
A starting strong-side defensive end for the U. of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Joe helped the defense make a pair of goal-line stands that directly led to UMD securing a last-second 20-17 triumph over Delta State U., in the NCAA DII National Football Championship game in Florence, Ala.
The team wrapped up a 15-0 season with the triumph, and doing it for the second time in three years makes the Bulldogs the only DII team to ever accomplish the feat more than once. The squad is 43-2 over the past three years under eighth-year head coach Bob Nielsen.
For Akey-a 6′ 3″, 250-pound redshirt sophomore-the experience has barely sunk in.
“That was quite the season to say the least,” he said. “We were on top of the world all weekend. The plane ride home was quite the ride. We’ve got finals right now, but I’m sure it will all settle in.
“It’s been a crazy season, but it ended the best way it could.”
As for those goal-line stands?
“That was very cool,” Akey said. “I was really surprised they went for it. It really shows how tough our defense could be.”
Duluth received a bye to open the playoffs, then reeled off wins over St. Cloud State (20-17), Augustana (24-13) and Northwestern Missouri State (29-17) to reach the title game. The Missouri game featured -14 degree wind chills.
The team lost Super Region #3 Offensive Player of the Year Isaac Odim, their star running back, to a torn meniscus in practice on Oct. 16. Coupled with other injuries and a couple of key losses to drug testing, the team kept its bearings.
It also has the team optimistic for another shot in 2011, despite the loss of 5 starters on defense and 4 more on offense.
“We overcame a lot of adversity,” Akey said. “We lost some guys, but one of the biggest parts of our team was people being able to step up. I think we’re going to be able to step up again next year. With the guys we have and the guys we’re bringing in, we’re expecting for ourselves to repeat.”
Not that the season is all fun and games.
“It was really long definitely,” Akey said. “I really feel it in my body. It’s falling apart.”
Yet, there will be little rest for the weary. To play at this level takes a nearly full-time commitment.
“Our season is almost three months long,” Akey said. “We’ll get a couple of weeks off, then start lifting again and morning runs. We’ll lift four days a week, then spring ball is four days a week. A lot of our guys even stay up here in summer. It really gives us an edge doing 7-on-7’s, lifting, running.”
Joe finished with 44 tackles, 23 solo and 21 assisted, in the team’s 3-4 set that uses the line to eat up blockers for linebackers to make plays. He finished 2nd on the team in both sacks (6.5) and TFL’s (11). He broke up two passes, registered 3 QB hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. Joe was named the Defensive Scout Team POY in 2008 and earned Second Team All-NSIC honors this year.
Akey-an All-State DE for the Bluejays-credits WVC competition for giving him a taste of what he now faces.
“Compared to high school, the game is faster, first of all; a lot faster,” he said. “I’m able to hold on, but it took awhile to adjust. Playing in the Valley really helped prepare me.”
The national title game aired at 10 a.m. on ESPN-2.
“I was pretty amazed at the number of people that told me they watched the game,” Bob Akey, Joe’s father said.