When kickoff rolls around for the Colorado School of Mines football team Saturday, the Orediggers will find themselves in rarified air.
As hosts of an NCAA Division II quarterfinal for the first time in school history, they have a chance to extend what is already a historic season. Yet it wasn’t until a few former Orediggers showed up at practice this week that redshirt senior running back Michael Zeman began to fully comprehend what will be at stake when Angelo State visits Marv Kay Stadium at noon Saturday.
It was while he was talking with an alumnus from the 1950s that it really hit home.
“He was talking about how, ‘I know so many alumni that are here today because we’re living through you guys on the field, it means so much to us,’” Zeman said. “It made me feel like it’s not just us on the field. It’s everyone who has played Mines football in the past.”
Armed with one of the hottest offenses in Division II and a stifling defense, this Mines team is among the most successful to ever line up at the school.
Zeman, a Wheat Ridge native, and former Holy Family High School standout, is a key contributor for the the top-seeded Orediggers (11-1), who claimed their third consecutive Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title this season. Paired with quarterback John Matocha (2,591 yards passing, 32 touchdowns) of Magnolia, Texas, Zeman makes up one half of the two-headed monster that powers the Mines attack.
Zeman has run for 1,365 yards and scored 20 times. On Wednesday, he was named a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, awarded to the best player in Division II. It’s the fourth time a Mines player has been named a finalist, with Justin Dvorak winning most recently in 2016.
“It’s a cool thing to have on my résumé,” he said. “But at the end of the day I’d take a national championship over a Harlon Hill award.”
Zeman was unanimously named a captain this season, and head coach Gregg Brandon said he has delivered.
“He embraced the role,” Brandon said. “He’s done a good job with leadership, done a good job with his position group, the offense and the team overall. Captains do a lot for winning programs, and he’s embraced our culture here and continues to grow.”
While Mines’ offense is the headliner, its defense is hardly a sideshow. The Orediggers have caused seven turnovers in the past two games, all off interceptions, and they have the fourth-best turnover margin (plus-17) in Division II. As a result, the Orediggers have allowed the third-fewest points in Division II (12.2 per game).
They will face a red-hot team in Angelo State (11-2, 5-2 Lone Star Conference), which brings a seven-game win streak into Golden. The Rams are looking to reach the semifinals for the first time in 32 years. With four all-conference offensive linemen, they have the talent up front to make things difficult for the Orediggers.
“They’re running the ball well but can also throw it,” Brandon said. “They’ve got speed on the perimeter, they are a good Lone Star team. When they come in here, they’ll look the part.”
The Rams have held opponents to just 21 points so far in playoff wins over Minnesota-Duluth (48-14) and Nebraska-Kearney (20-7). They have the fifth-best run defense in the nation, holding teams to 74.3 yards per game.
Both Brandon and Zeman expect the game to be won in the trenches, where Mines has three sixth-year seniors starting due to the extra year COVID-19 granted them.
Things feel different than 2019, when Mines was eliminated in a second-round home playoff game by Texas A&M Commerce. Those Orediggers fielded the same starting front just two times as they rotated 12 different starters through due to injury.
Zeman said even if he can only get three or four yards per carry Saturday, he trusts his guys to keep chipping away.
“We have a game plan, but the run game will be a grind,” Zeman said. “So we’ll have to take the 2, 3, 4-yard carries and try to keep getting after them, and hopefully, that big one will break.”
Saturday’s game will be televised locally on KWGN-TV, channel 2, and streamed on the RMAC Network.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Denver Post prior to Mines’ win this past Saturday. They advanced to the semifinals of the Division II playoffs and will travel to Georgia to play Valdosta (Ga.) State this Saturday at 10 a.m. MT.