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Home Sports Bulldogs finish 2023 football season full of highs and a few lows

Photo description: Quarterback D.J. McGarvie scans the field

Photo credit: Josiah Seabaugh

Cohen Carpenter

Sower Staff


The 95th season of Concordia football is officially in the books as the Bulldogs wrapped up 2023 with a 5-5 record and a fourth place finish in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

Like any competitive year of football, the season saw great highs and steep lows. One of the highs came in week one against a No. 1 ranked Northwestern College squad. The last game the Red Raiders played before coming to Bulldog Stadium was in December 2022 against the Keiser University Seahawks in Durham, N.C., the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ National Championship game that Northwestern won 35-25.

So, when the Bulldogs went blow-for-blow with the reigning champs – eventually
putting five touchdowns on the board in a 35-48 loss – it was not surprising to see that the 2023 team would muster one of the more proficient scoring offenses in program history.

The 30.3 points per game, the Bulldogs’ average this season, was good for fourth all-time, a feat not accomplished since 1970 when John Seevers led Concordia to a first-place conference finish and the team was ranked 12th overall nationally.

The highlight of the high-flying offense proved to be their conditioning. Concordia ranked 35th in the NAIA for scoring offense, yet 85th when it came to time of pos- session per game. The trick? Getting the ball and scoring quickly.

“Our tempo wore on teams. I think we were in good physical condition and could see teams struggle with that as the game went on,” said first-year offensive coordinator Greg Nelson. “Tempo made things complex for the [defense]. In addition to wearing some teams out, we got more vanilla looks from some teams. Those static looks gave us an opportunity to attack before they could adjust.”

Pace-of-play was far from the only aspect that dazzled on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback D.J. McGarvie set program records this season for passing touch-downs and passing yards over a career with 52 and 6,514, respectively. McGarvie, in his junior year, built upon last season’s performance, averaging 264.2 yards per game, good for 10th in the NAIA.

“I told D.J. in our end-of-season meeting, ‘You have pretty much every individual accolade you could ever want, the only thing left to accomplish is winning and taking the team to the next level,’” said Nelson. “I know that will be his sole focus this off-season. I expect him to continue to improve as we evolve the offense and he continues to speed up his timing and execution.”

McGarvie isn’t the only Bulldog who will be back for more next season. Most of McGarvie’s bodyguards will likely take the field with him.

“Returning eight of our top 10 offensive lineman makes me really excited,” said Nelson, referencing the big guys up front. “We felt the offensive line was a big strength of our team and we wanted to find ways to unleash the aggression we saw from the unit.”

Aggression is indeed the right word. Running backs Devin Zeigler and Mark Arp combined for 1,261 yards
and 15 touchdowns on the ground this season – a feat which netted Zeigler a second team All-GPAC nod in his final season in the Bulldog blue and white. The offensive line also finished the year strong, not allowing a single sack in the final five contests. For their efforts, right tackle Blake Schlegel and left guard Tyler Walford both garnered All-GPAC honors.

As a unit, the offense boasted five players with conference honors; Ziegler, McGarvie, Walford and Schlegel, as well as star wide-out Austin Jablonski. Jablonski led the NAIA in catches, finishing the year with 1,174 receiving yards on 91 receptions, with eight touchdowns to boot, stats that landed the University of Nebraska-Lincoln transfer first, second and fourth in Concordia’s single-season records.

Not all of Concordia’s stars were on the offensive side of the ball. While the defense may not have boasted the historic numbers the offense did, there were still a number of Bulldogs who left their mark.

One notable position group was the defensive line. Out of the four Bulldog defenders who received All-GPAC honors, three are defensive lineman. Carson Fehlhafer and Devon Polley, who anchored the middle of the Concordia front four, got honorable mention All-GPAC and accounted for seven sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss between them. On the edge was first team All-GPAC nominee Kyle Sterup who boasted three sacks, 19 tackles for loss and 69 total tackles.

“As for the defensive line overall, we had five guys taking a brunt of the reps. They did a very good job overall,” said defensive coordinator Corby Osten. “[Fehlhafer, Polley and Sterup] are really good. They are good players who play sound and go all-out all the time. They make things happen and I was very happy with how they played.”

Outside of the trenches, it was Michael Grindey who led the team in tackles with 89 on the year. The middle linebacker also would contribute four sacks and eight tackles for loss, good enough for a second team All-GPAC nomination.

“The strength (of the defense) is our box,” said Osten. “Our front seven is the group that is going to be the oldest and has the most experience. You can lean on those guys for sure.”

There were close contests throughout the season. Aside from ranked opponents, the Bulldogs only had two losses on the season, Dakota Wesleyan and Midland. Both were one-possession games and the Midland contest went into two overtimes.

“Horseshoes and hand grenades,” said Osten, describing the season from a defensive standpoint. “Being close is only good in those two things. We have to stop being close. We need to narrow our focus and do what we know we have the capability of doing.”

Much like the offense, the defense retains a good majority of its personnel. This includes most of the defensive line, with Fehlhafer, Polley and Sterup.

“We have a lot of pieces returning,” said Osten about the 2024 season. “The offensive guys I talked to and the defensive guys I talked to are really hungry to get going. They are not satisfied with what we did, there was a lot more to be taken advantage of.”

All of the coaches’ eyes are turned toward next season. If the Bulldogs manage to improve on the 2023 season record, it would be the first time since 2016-2017 that Concordia finished fourth place or better in two consecutive seasons.

“Our expectation is that we work hard in the here and now,” said Coach Patrick Daberkow. “We have a tightknit locker room that believes in what we’re doing and understands that getting better is a never ending process of stacking seemingly mundane workdays on top of each other.”

Both coordinators shared similar sentiments regarding the outlook for 2024.

“I have the expectation that we want to make the playoffs each year,” said Nelson. “Credit coach Daberkow and the staff for building a roster with guys who share the same values and are willing and excited to work together. That is a really special quality of the program that is hard to talk about and show without being in the walls every day.”

“I love our locker room,” said Osten. “We have the right guys with the right attitude in the locker room. These are guys that are wanting to put in the work and wanting to get better. They all want to make improvements. These are also guys that, years down the road, we are going to be proud to call Concordia alums – they are going to represent us well.”

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