Jack Leius transferred to Minnesota State from Minnesota where he didn’t play last season following a redshirt year with the Gophers.
In Mankato, the junior linebacker/safety sure seems to have found a nice home, though, one that on Saturday spanned the length of Blakeslee Stadium.
In third-ranked Minnesota State’s 20-6 victory over Northern Sun foe Winona State, Leius was everywhere, breaking up and intercepting passes in the middle of the field, and stuffing runs and making sacks near the goal line.
“I think he’s been a tremendous addition to an already stellar defense,” Mavericks coach Todd Hoffner said. “He’s fitting into that nickel position. As a transfer from the University of Minnesota, he’s been accepted very well by his teammates. But he’s also been a playmaker and making a difference in the outcome of football games as a hybrid safety.”
Leius finished the game with seven total tackles, including two for loss and one of the Mavericks’ four sacks. He also had two pass breakups; and one of his team’s three interceptions.
“As long as everybody’s doing their job on defense, a lot of people are going to make plays,” Leius said.
Before a Blakeslee crowd of 5,018, the Mavericks remained undefeated (4-0, 4-0 in NSIC South) and held the Warriors (2-2, 2-2) to nearly 20 points below their season average.
The defense gave the offense short fields to work with, allowing running back Nate Gunn to do the rest. Gunn scored two first-quarter touchdowns and had his fourth 100-yard game of the year, rushing 27 times for 107 yards, a 4.0-yard average.
“When our defense goes out there and gets them off the field, it’s just momentum for us,” Gunn said. “We want to repay the defense as a whole.”
On the first play of the game, Mavericks linebacker Alex Goettl intercepted quarterback Owen Burke and returned the ball to the Winona State 12-yard line.
Three plays later, Gunn plunged in from the 1, and Luke Williams’ PAT gave MSU the quick 7-0 lead.
“The defense has been doing great for us all year long,” Gunn said. “They went out, and Goettl made that play. That was huge and got us going — momentum right off the jump. You can’t ask for a better start.”
The Warriors looked like they got their offense going on the next drive, going 50 yards to the MSU 20 before safety Cade Johnson intercepted Burke, reaching high to snatch the ball at the 5-yard line.
Later, with 1:24 remaining in the opening quarter, the Mavericks went up 14-0 as Gunn rushed in from 6 yards out on a fourth-and-1 play.
A penalty on Winona State would have given MSU a third-and-five from the 9, but the Mavericks declined it.
“We had run a couple of plays already where we had some success with what we were going to run on fourth down,” Hoffner said. “It was kind of a no-brainer. But we did talk on the headsets as a staff, and we all agreed that we should go for it and give Nate an opportunity to get the first down for us.”
The eight-play scoring drive was highlighted by a 50-yard pass from Ryan Schlichte to Justin Arnold that got the Mavericks to the Warriors 15-yard line.
Winona State put together an 18-play, 54-yard drive that chewed up nearly 8 ½ minutes of the second quarter and ended on Paul Ortiz’s 41-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in the first half.
Justin Taormina set up Minnesota State’s answer, though, returning the ensuing kickoff 66 yards to the Winona State 27. Ashton Garner booted a 39-yard field goal with no time remaining, and the Mavericks led 17-3 at the break.
“I thought Winona State came in with a great gameplan to try and slow things down, methodically trying to move the chains,” Hoffner said. “Their bend but don’t break philosophy on defense worked to a T. I thought they got a little tired, and I thought we were fresh when we were down inside that score zone. And our guys came up big.”
The Mavericks didn’t let the Warriors get in the end zone on a long third-quarter drive, either. A 13-play drive that lasted 7:12 ended in a 28-yard Ortiz field goal, thanks to two tough tackles by Leius.
Winona State had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and Leius burst through the line on a run blitz to stuff Sam Santiago-Lloyd for no gain. On second down, Leius was sent again on a blitz and sacked Burke for a nine-yard loss. Burke was flushed out of the pocket on third down, and his pass fell incomplete.
“Coach (Jim Glogowski, defensive coordinator) sent me and everybody did their job and that allowed me to do my job to make plays,” Leius said.
Late in the third quarter, the Mavericks finally put together a long drive of their own, one that also chewed up a good chunk of the fourth. They drove 74 yards in 15 plays, getting a 19-yard field goal by Williams to go up 20-6 with 8:37 remaining in the game.
The Mavericks held the Warriors to 187 yards while gaining 329. MSU quarterback J.D. Ekowa was 8 of 12 passing for 119 yards. Schlichte was 2 of 7 for 58 yards and an interception. Shane Zylstra caught five passes for 79 yards.
Up next, the Mavericks will host Minnesota Duluth at 2 p.m. Saturday.