MANKATO — Every season, the Minnesota State football team's goal is to do better than the previous season, and given the success of the program in the last 11 seasons, that's no easy task.
On Saturday at a cold Blakeslee Stadium, the Mavericks' season ended in the NCAA semifinals, one game farther than the 2017 season.
"But our ultimate goal is to win a national championship, and we didn't get that done today," receiver Shane Zylstra said.
Ferris State scored three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes to pull away for a 42-25 victory in front of 2,031 fans at Blakeslee Stadium. It was Minnesota State's third trip to the national semifinals in the last five seasons, but it's the second loss in those games.
The Bulldogs had 457 yards of offense with very few mistakes, pulling ahead early and never relinquishing the lead.
"They have a lot of gifted and talented players," Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner said. "Their quarterback is outstanding. I thought their lines, on both sides of the ball, did a good job."
The Mavericks (13-1) scored first, using a 21-yard run by Nate Gunn and a 56-yard pass from J.D. Ekowa to Zylstra to move into position. Ekowa completed the five-play drive with a 3-yard run, and Casey Bednarski's PAT made it 7-0 early in the first quarter.
However, Ferris State answered quickly, and Marvin Campbell scored on a 40-yard run to tie the game.
Minnesota State put together a 14-play drive, but it stalled on Ferris State's 5, allowing Bednarski to kick a 22-yard field goal as the Mavericks regained the lead.
Ferris scored twice more before halftime, throwing short and allowing receivers to run for extra yards. A 27-yard pass from Jayru Campbell to Sy Barnett made it 14-10 late in the first quarter, and a 2-yard by Barnett capped a 12-play drive that made it 21-10 midway through the second quarter.
The Mavericks got back in the game in the final 48 seconds of the first half. Converting a pair of fourth-down plays near midfield, the Mavericks scored on a 27-yard out-and-up pass from Ryan Schlichte to Justin Arnold. The PAT was blocked, keeping Ferris State ahead 21-16.
Minnesota State got the ball back at the Ferris State 48 with 17 seconds to go. Two quick completions allowed Bednarski to finish the half with a 41-yard field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-19.
Defenses dominated the third quarter until Ferris State's Dion Earls got loose on a swing pass, breaking one tackle before racing down the sideline for a 55-yard score and a 28-19 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"They gave us a lot of different looks," linebacker Zach Robertson said. "They did a great job of getting players open in space, and they made a couple of big plays."
Minnesota State drew closer with a 12-play drive in the fourth quarter as Gunn scored on a 1-yard run. The PAT hit the upright, leaving Ferris State with a 28-25 lead with 12:08 to play.
But the Bulldogs came right back with a 13-play drive, 11 of which were rushes, that took almost seven minutes to make it 35-25. Marvin Campbell scored on a 1-yard run.
On the next series, Schlichte was hit as he tried to pass, and the fumble was recovered by Ferris State. On the next play, Derek Portis scored on a 19-yard run for a 42-25 lead.
"Today, we faced a deficit we couldn't overcome," Hoffner said. "It got away from us at the end, but you have to give Ferris State all the credit."
The Mavericks finished with 469 yards of offense, with Gunn rushing for 149 yards on 33 carries and Zylstra making nine catches for 178 yards. The Mavericks passed a season-high 48 times, only the second time this season they had attempted more than 30, with only 18 completions.
"We wanted to be balanced," Hoffner said. "But it was pretty tough sledding out there. Our defense held up for a long time, but that offense is electric, very tough to defend."
Cade Johnson and Robertson each made eight tackles, and Robertson had the only sack. Ferris State's Jayru Campbell, a Harlon Hill finalist, rushed for 103 yards and passed for 251.
Ferris State (15-0) plays Valdosta State (14-0) in the championship game Saturday at McKinney, Texas.
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier