MANKATO – The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference grew to 16 teams with the additions of the University of Sioux Falls and Minot State for 2012. One result was the elimination of nonconference games for football.
That means the 22-game winning streak in the regular season that Minnesota State Mankato carried into Saturday's game at aging Blakeslee Stadium also was a 22-game winning streak in conference games.
The Mavericks' most recent NSIC loss was at home against Sioux Falls on Oct. 29, 2016, and the opponent on this wet, chilly Saturday was again the Cougars. USF might be a Christian liberal arts college with roughly 1,400 undergraduates, but it's a serious football school that entered the NSIC after winning five NAIA national titles.
MSU Mankato coach Todd Hoffner was talking about the matchup on Friday and gave a salute to the talents of Gabriel Watson, a 6-1, 221-pound junior running back and the nation's leading Division II rusher.
Hoffner wasn't exaggerating. The emphasis on stopping Watson created other flaws in the Mavericks defense, and then in the fourth quarter, he was unstoppable on a drive that cut their lead to a touchdown.
And then, as happens regularly for MSU Mankato, the Mavericks made a clutch defensive stand, and then drove for a clinching field goal by Casey Bednarski.
Final: No. 1-rated MSU Mankato 31, Sioux Falls 21, and the streak is 23.
What's somewhat different about this collection of Mavericks is the lack of seniors. There are only a half-dozen on the 93-player roster, including Bednarski, the place-kicker on the NFL's radar.
"We have some excellent seniors,'' Hoffner said. "We just don't have many.''
Seniors or not, depth always seems to be a characteristic of Hoffner's teams, and that includes at quarterback. The Mavericks play two: junior Ryan Schlichte from Mankato West and sophomore JD Ekowa from Plainfield, Ill.
The familiar joke — if you have two quarterbacks, you have none — doesn't apply here. Schlichte came in leading D-II in passing efficiency. Ekowa has a strong arm and is a serious running threat.
On this Saturday, Schlichte equaled his season interception total with two in the first half, and Ekowa played most of the way — rushing for 57 yards and completing 10 of 17 passes for 196 yards.
There were a couple of anxious moments for the home squad:
The Mavericks wound up holding Watson to a season-low 109 yards on 26 carries, but he was immense during a 70-yard drive that cut the lead to 28-21 with 11:35 left in the game.
Watson had six carries for 53 yards and the TD. He was hitting the pile, then bouncing outside and leaving three or four Mavericks in perplexed pursuit. When Watson's 25th touchdown of the season was followed by an MSU Mankato three-and-out, you could hear the gulp from the customers.
A combined sack from Alex Goettl and Keyshawn Davis halted the Sioux Falls' comeback and forced a punt. Bednarski's clinching field goal followed.
Goettl, a junior linebacker and another Mankato West produced, also had turned anxiety to relief late in the first half. He intercepted a pass from Caden Walters at midfield with 57 seconds left, and MSU Mankato zoomed into the end zone in three plays for a 21-14 lead.
Goettl wears No. 49 for the Mavericks. It is called the "Jersey of Character'' and is worn in honor of Jeffrey Spann, the leading tackler in school history as a standout in the 1980s. Spann died unexpectedly in 2017.
There is added significance for Goettl. His mother, Michelle, died at age 49 on Jan. 3, 2017, while on a family vacation in the Bahamas. Ultra-active, Michelle suffered a heart attack while scuba diving.
The Goettls are a well-known North Mankato family: Dan and Michelle, softball elites; daughters Ashley, Kelsey and Katie, and Alex as the brother. Ashley had been a news anchor in Mankato but recently switched to radio reporting to spend more time with her 1-year-old, John Hanley V.
Ashley said of her kid brother at halftime: "That was a great interception. We're so proud of him.''
There's also pride bursting here in the Key City over the exploits that a wide receiver, Adam Thielen, MSU Mankato football (2008-12), is providing on a weekly basis for the home-state Vikings.
"Adam's gotten better every season, every offseason, and he's still getting better,'' Hoffner said. "He weighs 200 pounds now, and that's 200 pounds of gold for what he's doing for the image of Minnesota State — not just football, for the image of this institution.''