Reusse: Turns out Georgians were well-fitted for MSU Mankato's chilly welcome

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 9, 2012 - 6:41 AM

Valdosta State, freshly geared up for the elements, ended Mankato's dream season.

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Valdosta State's Seantavious Jones pulls in a pass ahead of Minnesota State, Mankato's Patrick Schmidt.

Photo: Pat Christman, Associated Press - Mankato Free Press

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MANKATO, MINN. - Valdosta, Ga., is a football-crazed city of 55,000 located 20 miles from the Florida border. It was 82 degrees there on Saturday.

That probably explains why the Valdosta State Blazers were not equipped with proper cold-weather gear when they arrived in Minnesota for Saturday's Division II semifinal game against Minnesota State Mankato.

The Blazers did not have warm jackets for the players. What they did have was this connection: Defensive coordinator Seth Wallace's father is the athletic director at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Greg Wallace was planning to attend the game and he brought a collection of red Grinnell jackets with him. These were featured by many of the Blazers on the sideline.

As it turned out, it took a little over a quarter of adjustment for the warm-weather visitors, and then Valdosta quarterback Cayden Cochran triggered a high-octane offense that put up 498 yards in a 35-19 victory over MSU.

This put an end to the Mavericks' unbeaten run at 13 games. That's an outstanding season by any measure, and a remarkable one when you consider the drama that landed in their laps.

Coach Todd Hoffner was led off the field on Aug. 17 and soon accused of having child pornography on a school-issued cell phone. In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, prosecutors and the media went nuts. The school placed Hoffner on leave and offensive coordinator Aaron Keen took over as coach.

On it went, for weeks, until a Blue Earth County judge finally threw out the case -- built on the video of Hoffner's young kids and no other evidence -- on Nov. 30.

The response of this group of Mavericks football players was to keep on winning, through 11 games in the regular season, through a pair of playoff games, all the way until Saturday -- when Cochran started dropping sweet passes into the hands of Gerald Ford, Seantavious Jones and Regginald Lewis.

When the best-ever season for MSU was over, Keen paid tribute to his players by saying: "They battled throughout this year and through today. You could see the character of our guys this year, and you saw it again today."

Through the first 18 minutes of play, a substantial and boisterous crowd (announced at 3,356) had to feel as if the Mavericks' season would be ending next Saturday in Florence, Ala., in the Division II title game.

On its second possession, MSU started at its 21 and got as far as Valdosta's 6 before kicking a field goal. On its third possession, MSU went 70 yards, with Jon Wolf throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Adam Thielen.

It was 10-0 and the Mavericks had run 29 plays to six for Valdosta.

And then everything changed. The Blazers had two big drives before the half and led 14-10. Cochran was hitting Ford in medium range over the middle and he was pump-faking and hitting Jones deep. And, he was counting on Lewis' relentless nature to turn a short pass into a big gainer.

This was probably the decisive play of the game: Valdosta, on the first possession of the second half, was facing third-and-3 at MSU's 39. Cochran threw a quick screen to Lewis and two tacklers hit him 2 yards behind the line. They got him to stumble, but Lewis regained his balance and went for 34 yards to MSU's 5.

Soon, it was 21-10 and MSU was chasing uphill the rest of the frigid afternoon.

Cochran comes from Cashion, Okla. He played 8-man football there. He went to Coffeyville [Kan.] Junior College for two years (one a redshirt). He spent a spring semester at Oklahoma, where the Sooners said he was a receiver and he wanted to continue being a quarterback.

In the spring of 2011, his family home in Cashion was destroyed by a tornado. At the same time, Valdosta coach David Dean was looking for a quarterback.

"We went on the Internet and read about Cayden, and got him to make a visit," Dean said. "I even came back from the beach, from vacation, to see him.

"I thought once he learned our system, he was the quarterback to take us where we're now headed."

Which is the D-II title game in Alabama ... a place where borrowed cold-weather jackets should not be required.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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