By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
Mike Bernarde saw it again on the game film this week.
As the Minnesota State football team was in the process of wrapping up an impressive 52-14 victory at Augustana last Saturday, scoring 28 unanswered points in the second half, Bernarde saw the physical pounding of four quarters take its toll on the Vikings’ defenders.
“You could tell we defeated their will to play,” the Minnesota State senior guard said. “They were questioning themselves, and they were tired. That’s a great feeling as an offensive lineman.”
The Mavericks (6-0) host Southwest Minnesota State at 2 p.m. today in a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference football game at Blakeslee Stadium. As usual, the success of the Mavericks’ offense will likely be determined by the young, though experienced, offensive line.
“I feel a lot more comfortable when we can run the ball,” coach Aaron Keen said.
Bernarde is the oldest of the lineman. The 6-foot-2, 315-pound guard from Sussex, Wis., has been in the program for five seasons, working his way up to starter.
After redshirting in 2008, he played seven games in 2009 and three in 2010. Last season, he suffered injuries that limited him to five games, but he could see the line developing into a cohesive group.
“It really started the spring before,” he said. “We had went through some adversity with some guys leaving, and the young guys had to step up. I think the older guys started molding with the younger guys, and we just kept on building.”
The rest of the line is predominantly redshirt sophomores, though this same group started most of the games last season. Guard Andrew Essman has the most experience, having started 29 games, while center Josh Meeker and tackles Chris Reed, Gary Hiatt and Max Hofmeister are sophomores who started games last season. And each weighs more than 300 pounds.
“When it’s the fourth quarter, you need to have a line that loves to block and running backs that love to carry the ball,” Keen said. “It’s an attitude thing.”
The Mavericks are averaging 235.2 yards rushing, with 120.5 yards in the second half of games. In the third and fourth quarters, the Mavericks average 4.6 yards per carry.
“Our only goal is always to have he most rushing yards in the fourth quarter,” Bernarde said. “We’ve had young quarterbacks this year so it’s been important to get the run game going so they can be more effective. It takes the pressure off the quarterback and opens up the passing lanes.”
The line has been incredibly durable this season as only Reed has missed time with a sprained ankle, but Hiatt has filled in well at tackle. Bernarde said the practice regimen of going four to six plays, then taking a couple off, combined with an offseason running program, has allowed the lineman to be in better shape than the opposing defenders, who constantly rotate during games.
“And we go against our top-ranked defense every day in practice,” Bernarde said. “If we do our best against them, it allows us to take care of business against other teams.”