Gauging his team’s emotions in a silent locker room, Minnesota State, Mankato coach Todd Hoffner didn’t detect anger or disappointment immediately after a 31-27 loss to Winona State last month. “The guys were in shock,” said Hoffner, whose team lost at home to a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival for the first time in 27 games over five years. “None of them, not even our seniors, had ever experienced that.”
The initial jolt has subsided, but the fifth-ranked Mavericks haven’t forgotten that feeling as they open the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday against Emporia State. They regrouped to win their final three games of the regular season — including a 44-3 battering of No. 8 Sioux Falls — and earn a third consecutive NSIC title.
It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons, with the end of a record 40-game conference winning streak and a rash of significant injuries. Still, Hoffner said his team’s stumbles have made it stronger heading into its postseason opener against the No. 23 Hornets at Blakeslee Stadium.
“They took that loss to heart,” Hoffner said of the Mavericks, who are making their ninth NCAA playoff appearance and fourth in a row. “They really refocused.”
The Mavericks held the No. 1 national ranking for the first seven weeks of the season as they started 7-0. Since the loss to Winona State on Oct. 24, MSU has outscored opponents 141-34 in victories over Southwest Minnesota State, Sioux Falls and Wayne State, behind one of the best defenses in Division II and an efficient offense run by quarterbacks Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini.
Senior defensive end Josh Gordon anchors a defense that is surrendering 12.9 points and 248.6 yards per game. MSU is particularly stingy against the run, allowing opponents only four rushing touchdowns this season and 76.1 rushing yards per game. Gordon is ranked fourth nationally with 14 sacks; on Wednesday, he was named the NSIC’s defensive player of the year for the second consecutive season.
Injuries on both sides of the ball have complicated things for the Mavericks. Starters who have been sidelined include running back Connor Thomas, MSU’s all-time leading rusher; Kyle Riggott, one of the team’s top receivers, and offensive lineman Luke Wendricks. Linebacker Tyler Henderson, who leads MSU with 64 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions, also could miss the game because of a knee injury.
Henderson praised the understudies for coming through. “It’s been difficult,” he said. “But when we’ve needed guys to step up their game, they have.”
The Mavericks entered the season with another defeat lingering in their minds: their 13-0 loss to Colorado State-Pueblo in the Division II championship game last December. That made them more determined to get another crack at winning MSU’s first national championship in football, they said.
“That Winona game put a chip on our shoulders,” Pieruccini said. “It has been a huge motivator.”