MINNEAPOLIS — The Mankato West offense didn’t do much in the first half.
The Scarlets scored on a fumble return by the special teams, and a couple of turnovers put pressure on the defense.
But the first time the West offense touched the ball in the second half, just after Mahtomedi cut the lead to 14-3, an 80-yard drive pushed the margin to two scores and provided some margin of comfort.
“After they scored, everybody kept their heads up, and I liked that,” West coach J.J. Helget said. “I challenged our offensive line, and I knew we had to make a statement. The offensive line was phenomenal.”
Despite four turnovers, West defeated Mahtomedi 24-10 in the championship game of the Class AAAAA football playoffs Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium. It was the fifth state title for West, which also won in 1999, 2002, 2008 and 2014 and has never lost in a state championship game.
West (13-0), which is on a 19-game winning streak, completed the first undefeated season in program history, defeating three teams with a combined record of 28-4 in three state-tournament games. West allowed just 64 points in 13 games, another program record of 4.9 points per game.
“You just feel like all the practice really paid off,” senior Gibson Blackstad said. “It was a happy ending. It was amazing.”
The game had fireworks early. The Scarlets ran three times into the line, gaining only 6 yards on the first possession, setting up a punt.
However, Elijah Bollman hit the returner, forcing a fumble, which Ryan Haley picked up and ran in from 34 yards for the opening score. Drew Smook’s PAT made it 7-0 after two minutes.
“Good players know how to find the football, and Ryan is a good football player,” Helget said. “He’s always making plays. He has a knack for the ball, which is something you can’t teach. He’s a really good player because he’s always in the right spot.”
For Haley, it was his second score of the last two games, recovering a fumble in the end zone early in last week’s 42-7 victory over Rogers.
“It meant a lot to get that one,” Haley said. “It showed (Mahtomedi) that it wasn’t going to be easy.”
The Scarlets added another score late in the opening quarter, with Zander Dittbenner passing 9 yards to Brady Haugum, making it 14-0.
“I just want to thank all my teammates,” Haugum said. “Zander made a great pass, and Helget had a great play call. You have to give credit to everybody else.”
West fumbled at its own 15 early in the second quarter, which Mahtomedi turned into a field goal. West had another turnover late in the second quarter, but the defense held again before Blackstad blocked a field goal.
Mahtomedi scored on its first possession of the third quarter, clicking on a couple long passes before bulling in on a 1-yard run that made it 14-10.
But the West offense responded with an 80-yard drive in 13 plays. On fourth-and-2, Dittbenner passed to Blackstad, whose first reception of the season turned into a 13-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. It was the same play that West used with Haugum in the quarterfinal victory over St. Thomas Academy, but with the Mahtomedi defense paying attention to Haugum, Blackstad shifted into that spot.
“You just have to be ready and be in the right spot at that moment,” Blackstad said.
The offense kept things interesting with a couple of fumbles, but the defense gave up nothing. Finally, the offense made a drive that used up 6:17 and ended with Smook’s 35-yard field goal to make it 24-10 with 4:17 remaining.
“We just had to execute a lot better (on offense),” Dittbenner said. “The defense has been the highlight of our season.”
When the Scarlets finally stopped the last drive in their own territory, the celebration began. West had only 265 yards of offense, with 13 yards rushing, but scored when it needed to. The defense gave up only 259 yards, with 211 yards passing on a few deep balls.
Dittbenner completed 11 of 18 passes for 121 yards, and Walker Britz rushed for 56 yards.
Haley and Damian Riewe each made six tackles to lead the defense.
“All season, we’ve known we have a good football team,” Helget said. “To do what this team did this season, it’s a testament to the hard work of these kids.
“To go 13-0, this is the legacy these guys have accomplished.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.