By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
The game was tied, and Minnesota State took over at the 20-yard line with 8:51 to play.
The Mavericks are built to run the ball, and the offensive line and running backs were already having a good game.
But in the quarterfinals of the national tournament, against a quality opponent, the Mavericks had their most clutch drive of the afternoon.
“We have a lot of confidence in our running game,” junior center Andrew Essman said. “We do what we always try to do: Create some holes and get through (to block) the linebackers.”
The Mavericks scored on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that took nearly six minutes, capped off by Connor Thomas’ 12-yard touchdown run with 3:16 to play. That lifted the home team to a 17-10 victory over Missouri Western State in the championship game of the Super Region 3 playoffs Saturday at Blakeslee Stadium.
“I was very proud of the way we rushed the football today,” interim coach Aaron Keen said. “We needed that to win.”
The final scoring drive was the culmination of a game-long strategy. Through three quarters, the Mavericks had rushed for 220 yards and had almost seven minutes more of possession time, but the game was tied.
The defense had just held near midfield, forcing a punt that went into the end zone to put the ball at Minnesota State’s 20. Thomas, a redshirt freshman who had rushed for 102 yards in the first half, had only one carry in the third quarter, but he was in the huddle for the most important possession.
“There are drives where we want a certain back in there because we feel like he runs a certain play well,” Keen said. “That drive, it was the inside zone, and we feel like Connor has a good feel for the cutback.”
The Mavericks opened with a 20-yard pass from Jon Wolf to tight end Jeff Burns, completing the pass after eluding the defensive rush to buy some time. Then came four straight runs by Thomas for 10 yards hat moved the ball into Missouri Western State’s side of the field.
“I usually try to see if there is some fatigue there,” Keen said. “But Connor wouldn’t look at the sideline. I don’t think he wanted to come out.
Austin Rieder made his first catch of the season to push the ball to the 33, which was borderline field-goal territory, but Thomas had two more rushes to gain 15 yards. After Wolf ran one wide, Thomas broke the pile and raced 12 yards for the go-ahead score.
“We took the field with confidence,” Thomas said. “It all starts with the (offensive) line. I was seeing the cutbacks really well, and the receivers made some great blocks down field.”
After the touchdown, Missouri Western State took over at the 8 and were pushed back to the 1. Safety Earl Brooks made the clinching interception.
Thomas finished with a career-high 159 yards rushing, a week after teammate Andy Pfeiffer rushed for 120 yards in the victory against Northwest Missouri State.
“Each week, you prepare in case your number is called,” Thomas said. “Last week, I was proud of Andy, and I’m sure he’s proud of me today.”
The teams traded field goals in the first quarter, with Missouri Western State’s Taylor Anderson hitting a 30-yarder and Sam Brockshus answering with a 26-yarder.
The Mavericks went ahead in the second quarter on a 20-yard run by Wolf, and it looked as though Minnesota State would add to the 10-3 lead before half. But a completion was ruled out of the end zone and Brockshus missed from 37 yards on the final play.
In the third quarter, Missouri Western State tied the game as quarterback Travis Partridge ran 35 yards for a touchdown.
The Mavericks ended up with 389 yards of offense, with 289 yards rushing. They also had 37:47 in possession time, more than 15 minutes more than the opponent, in part because they were 8 of 15 on third-down conversions.
Minnesota State (13-0) takes on Valdosta State in the national semifinals Saturday. The time and site will be determined. Valdosta State defeated Carson-Newman 48-26 Saturday.
“I love it,” Essman said. “Two years ago, we were 6-5 and I didn’t know what this program was all about. But now I want to go all the way.”