McKINNEY, Texas – Minnesota State Mankato's quest for an NCAA Division II football championship will have to wait another year. West Florida won the D-II championship game 48-40 Saturday, the Mavericks' first loss this season.
Minnesota State Mankato mounted a furious rally from a 38-21 halftime deficit, with the 59 points setting a D-II championship record for a first half. But the Mavericks' drive for a tying touchdown died at the West Florida 18-yard line with 44 seconds left.
"We just left a few plays out there," Mavericks wide receiver Shane Zylstra said.
On the final drive, West Florida was concentrating on stopping Zylstra. Mavericks quarterback Ryan Schlichte completed five consecutive passes to Justin Arnold, his roommate for their five years at Minnesota State.
"There's a reason that Shane's gonna have an opportunity to play at the next level," Schlichte said. "Shane's a very good player, and so's Justin. We were taking what they were giving us."
The final play was an incomplete pass intended for Zylstra.
"I wish I could have made that play for them," he said.
Arnold tied a championship-game record with 13 catches, which produced 154 yards and a touchdown. Zylstra caught 11 passes for 145 yards and a score. He broke the Minnesota State Mankato season record with 81 receptions. Chad Ellman (1996) and the Vikings' Adam Thielen (2012) had the previous record of 74.
The Mavericks finished the game without their leading rusher, Nate Gunn. He was injured in the second half.
MSU's top-ranked defense was shredded for a championship-game record 523 passing yards. Using almost exclusively passing plays, West Florida redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Reed broke the former record of 361 before halftime. He also threw a record six touchdown passes.
The Mavericks (14-1) also entered the game leading Division II in offensive yardage and finished with 562 total yards, one yard more than the Argonauts.
West Florida (13-2) scored on every first-half possession.
The last was the most difficult for Mavericks coach Todd Hoffner. West Florida stopped Gunn at the 1 on fourth down in the final minute of the second quarter. Three completed passes later, West Florida scored a touchdown. Instead of trailing possibly 24-21 at halftime, Minnesota State was in a 31-14 hole.
"We had the mentality coming into the game that we were not going to settle for field goals 'til we had to," Hoffner said. "When you have fourth-and-1 at the 1, you gotta convert that. And if we don't, we have to stop. We can't let them go 99 yards and not keep us within 10 points. But they did that."
The Argonauts didn't punt until the second half, and when they did the Mavericks fumbled the ball away at their own 40. Minnesota State Mankato lost three fumbles; the Mavericks had lost just nine in their first 14 games.
Gunn scored two touchdowns, but West Florida held him to 57 yards on 19 carries before he left with a second-half injury. He finished the season with 1,668 rushing yards, 47 short of his school-record 1,705 set in 2018.
"He was unavailable," Hoffner said without elaborating.
The coach was emotional in the postgame media session. Regaining composure, he recited a litany of accomplishments by the Mavericks' second team to reach the championship game.
"Forty-eight and six over the last four years, 40-3 over the last three years, national finalist, national semifinalist, numerous championships, undefeated seasons," he said.