Minnesota State’s first possession started at midfield, and five plays later, quarterback Ryan Schlichte raced 34 yards up the middle for the first touchdown of the game.
In a game between two of the best defenses in NCAA Division II, especially against the run, Minnesota State showed early that they wouldn’t stray much from their favored attack.
“Offensively, we did a good job, and it all starts up front,” Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner said. “The tight ends and receivers blocked exceptionally well. If you’d have told me we’d put up over 500 yards of offense, against a defense we consider exceptional, elite ... we always have the potential to do great things with great athletes. Sometimes, the resistance is really strong, but I think we wore them down as the game progressed.”
The Mavericks totaled 547 yards of offense, with 290 yards rushing, in a 35-7 victory over Colorado State-Pueblo in the Super Region 4 semifinals Saturday at Blakeslee Stadium. It’s the third straight season that Minnesota State has defeated the Thunderwolves in the playoffs at Blakeslee.
CSU-Pueblo had the top rushing defense in Division II, allowing 57.0 yards per game, and 12th overall at 275.2 yards allowed. The Mavericks are the No. 1 defense, yielding 233.2 yards of offense, with 65.3 yards rushing, fourth-best in Division II.
“I don’t think we expected to put 35 points on them,” Minnesota State receiver Shane Zylstra said. “But we have that potential. We started slowly, but we made a lot of adjustments. Then things really started clicking for us.”
The Mavericks took a 7-0 lead, going with the wind, on Schlichte’s long run and PAT by Luke Williams. In the second quarter, battling a 20-mph wind, the Mavericks scored twice on the ground.
“We knew they were going to play a lot of man-to-man, and they were going to focus on stopping the run, especially Nate Gunn,” Hoffner said. “I think Ryan Schlichte’s big run to get us on the board early was crucial.”
Gunn, who was stripped of the ball at the goal line just a couple of plays earlier, scored on a 9-yard run for a 14-0 lead. The short scoring drive was set up by Zach Robertson’s interception.
The next drive took 10 plays to cover 49 yards as the Mavericks used eight rushes and a third-down pass to Shane Zylstra to set up Gunn’s 4-yard scoring run and a 21-0 lead.
CSU-Pueblo got some life when the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and a personal foul on the Mavericks put them at the 50. A 49-yard run preceded a 1-yard score by Nick Bingham to cut the gap to 21-7.
The Mavericks had 258 yards of offense in the first half, with 161 yards rushing, while CSU-Pueblo had 128 yards, with 95 yards rushing, including 49 yards on one play.
“Our offensive and defensive lines really controlled the football game,” Hoffner said. “The line of scrimmage was ours.”
The Mavericks’ offense continued to click in the third quarter, scoring on the first possession when J.D. Ekowa hit Shane Zylstra on a deep slant, and Zylstra went 74 yards for the score.
Nyles Williams’ spectacular diving catch set up another Mavericks’ touchdown, with Ekowa running in from the 8 on the next play for a 35-7 lead.
Minnesota State had 19 more offensive plays than CSU-Pueblo and nearly eight minutes more in possession time. Schlichte and Ekowa combined for 11 completions in 17 attempts for 257 yards and 122 yards rushing.
The Mavericks allowed only 176 yards of offense, with 105 yards rushing. CSU-Pueblo was only 1 of 11 on third down, and the Mavericks made four sacks, 2.5 by Brayden Thomas.
“We just focus on ourselves,” Thomas said. “That’s our goal every week, do our job and play as a unit. If we do that, we hope to win.”
The Mavericks (12-0), who had a bye as the No. 1 seed, will host the region championship game against Texas A&M-Commerce on Saturday. Commerce upset No. 2-seeded Tarleton State in the region quarterfinals before upsetting No. 3 Colorado School of Mines 23-3 on Saturday.
“Practice is important, but I was getting sick of it,” Zylstra said. “It’s nice to play a game, see someone else, be physical, get tackled, make plays. It was nice to get back at it, and I’m looking forward to next week.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.