MANKATO — Minnesota State had just given up a 90-yard drive for the go-ahead touchown to open the second half of last week's game against Minnesota Duluth, and another score might have created a deficit that was too large to overcome on the road.
The defense needed a stop, and a turnover would be even better. That's when Nathan Hancock has been showing up.
"The coaches do a great job of coaching the players to look for turnovers," Mavericks coach Aaron Keen said. "He studies his assignments, and it seems like he's in the right place. The most exciting thing is to watch him at the point of contact,"
The Mavericks (3-0) host Northern State (1-2) in the homecoming game at 2 p.m. today at Blakeslee Stadium. If there is a turnover by the Minnesota State defense, there's a decent chance that Hancock will somehow be involved.
"I get so excited when we get a turnover because it's a chance to celebrate with my teammates," Hancock said. "When you get one, you want to get right back out there and get another. I just want to contribute to the team.""
Hancock was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference defensive player of the week for his performance at Minnesota Duluth, where he made 10 tackles, recovered a fumble, made an interception and forced another fumble. Those three turnovers came on consecutive possesions, which allowed the Mavericks to rally.
Hancock probably shouldn't even be at Minnesota State. He was hotly recruited in the Kansas City area, and he chose Nebraska-Omaha, where he redshirted as a freshman. Before his sophomore season, Nebraska-Omaha dropped football, leaving Hancock to search for a new home.
A lot of schools showed interest, but he was looking for a place where he could study civil engineering.
"I had it down to three schools," Hancock said. "MSU had a good engineering program, the football program was good, and I got a good scholarship. This is where I wanted to be."
It was shortly after that when Keen came from Nebraska-Omaha to be the Mavericks' offensive coordinator.
"I was really excited when I heard that," Hancock said.
In his first two seasons at Minnesota State, Hancock, who also competes as a decathlete with the track team, has played in 24 of 26 games and totalled 79 tackles, with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. This season, he's made 18 tackles with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and forced fumble. In Week 1, he had a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"He has a lot of athletic ability, and he has a fearlessness and ability to create a huge collision," Keen said. "That's combination is tough to find."
The defense's numbers have been pretty good through three games: 21.3 points, 92.7 yards rushing and 200.3 yards passing per game. But it's not been as stout as last season, when Minnesota State ranked among the best defenses in Division II.
The defense played better against Minnesota Duluth last week, and Hancock said he hopes the improvement continues. Given that most of that unit has played together for two or three seasons, he expects the numbers to change. He's a little concerned that opponents seem to have some success early in both halves.
"We just seem to come out a little flat," Hancock said. "(Defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman) has been getting after us because we haven't been playing like we should. We need to get back to shutting down the running game and making a team one-dinensional. That's when we're playing Maverick defense."