By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
The Minnesota State football team has one of the best rushing attacks in Division II, in large part because of the five players in the line that pound and grind most teams into submission sometime during the second half of games.
The Mavericks rank fifth in Division II for rush defense, mainly because the front four can hold its own against five opposing linemen and make the tackles, or take up blockers so that linebackers and safeties can run free to the ball-carrier.
But what would happen if the Minnesota State offensive line took on the Mavericks’ defensive front in a real game?
That depends on who you ask.
“I think it would be pretty even, for a bit,” junior guard Andrew Essman said, starting to crack a wry smile. “Eventually, someone would have to break.”
It could be a good-natured debate and a heckuva battle between two powerful units.
The Mavericks have used the same set of offensive linemen for most of the last two seasons: tackles Chris Reed and Max Hofmeister, guards Essman and Mike Bernarde and center Josh Meeker. Gary Hiatt, the backup at all five positions, filled in at tackle when Reed was injured.
“Our chemistry is real good,” Essman said. “We’ve played together for so long that we all know what each other is going to do. We all just love running the football.”
The Mavericks rank 16th in Division II by averaging 235.3 yards rushing per game, which has helped the team gain more than seven minutes of possession time each game.
Last week in the region championship game against Missouri Western State, with the scored tied at 10 midway through the fourth quarter, the Mavericks put together a 10-play drive that covered 80 yards and took more than five minutes to get the go-ahead touchdown. Only two of those plays were passes.
“Any time you can get 5 yards a play running the same play four times in a row, that’s fun,” Essman said. “(The linemen) have a lot of confidence; we don’t need any of that rah-rah stuff. When we get rolling, everyone’s having fun.”
Perhaps that drive wouldn’t have been so easy had the Mavericks been going against their own defensive front, which rotates eight players in four spots. Defensive end Chris Schaudt gets a lot of the attention, having already set the school record with 26 sacks in his career with a season left, but there’s not much of a dropoff when he’s off the field.
“We don’t have individuals on this team,” defensive tackle Barry Ballinger said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who get the job done with our rotation and our depth.”
Josh Gordon starts opposite of Schaudt, with Shonquille Dorsey and Josh LaPlante as backups. Ballinger and Kaleb Wendricks start at defensive tackle, but Bryan Keys and Jeff Raymond split the reps.
Opposing teams have only been able to generate 83.7 yards rushing per game, gaining just 2.7 yards per carry. It’s the defense’s philosophy to take away the run, which they’ve done in nearly every game. Only four teams have rushed for more than 100 yards against Minnesota State.
“Our guys don’t give up,” Ballinger said. “Our coach stresses technique, and when you watch film of other defensive lines, they’re technique isn’t as good.”
During the regular season, the Mavericks do about 50 percent of the practice with “good against good,” meaning starters vs. starters. In the playoffs, there’s not as much practice time devoted to that first-team battle as both units try to stay fresh.
“Some days in practice, there are times when the offense can’t get a yard, and then there are times when we successfully run the ball (against the starting defense),” coach Aaron Keen said. “They’re matched so evenly physically that it’s a matter of which group brings its ‘A’ game to practice.”
Ballinger tried to be diplomatic. The team has had success because both the offensive and defensive lines have played well all season.
Essman said the defensive line is so good because of its attitude and its refusal to give ground, while Ballinger complimented the cohesiveness and discipline of the offensive line.
Keen is just happy to have both units working so well.
But you can tell by Ballinger’s expression that he’d like to laud his defensive teammates.
“I’ll call it a draw,” Ballinger said. “I feel like we have the best offensive line I’ve faced all year.”