MANKATO - Despite the score, Nick Pieruccini and Joshua Gordon didn’t sense any worry in their locker room at halftime Thursday night. Minnesota State Mankato, the top-ranked team in Division II, had fallen behind No. 3 Minnesota Duluth 17-3, and the only points the Mavericks managed in the first half came on a field goal in the final seconds.
Gordon, the Mavericks All-America defensive end, said he felt confident the defense would tighten things up in the second half. Pieruccini, who shared time at quarterback with starter Ricky Lloyd, felt the same about the offense. Their faith helped fuel a furious second-half rally, as MSU Mankato shut out the Bulldogs in the final 30 minutes en route to a 20-17 victory at Blakeslee Stadium.
The Mavericks erased a 14-point halftime deficit by holding UMD to 44 yards of total offense and three first downs in the second half. Pieruccini started the rally with a 72-yard touchdown pass to Ty Dennis only 1 minute, 20 seconds into the third quarter. Alden Haffar added a 26-yard field goal, and Pieruccini’s 7-yard scoring dash gave the Mavericks their first lead of the game with 7:21 left.
MSU Mankato’s victory was its 34th in a row in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play, and it has won 25 consecutive league games at home. Though the game was played on a sweltering night with a heat index of 98 degrees at kickoff, the announced crowd of 6,387 was the fourth-largest in Blakeslee Stadium history.
“We gave up a couple of big plays [in the first half], but we really didn’t feel like they could drive on us,’’ said Gordon, whose team-high nine tackles included a sack and two tackles for loss. “Everyone just had to tighten up and focus on doing their job.’’
UMD quarterback Drew Bauer opened the scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and threw an 11-yard scoring strike to Justin Fowlkes with 5:23 left in the half. He outgained the Mavericks by himself in the first 30 minutes, rushing for 55 yards and throwing for 120 while the home team’s mistake-prone offense managed only 142 total yards.
Bauer was intercepted twice in the second half by a Mavericks defense that was stout against the pass and the run. MSU Mankato got good special-teams play as well; Kyle Riggot’s 51-yard punt return set up the winning touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter. Riggot escaped several Bulldogs and raced down the left sideline to the UMD 20.
Three plays later, the Bulldogs couldn’t stop Pieruccini, either, as he ran through them into the end zone.
The loss ended UMD’s streak of 15 consecutive victories in season openers and a string of 19 consecutive regular-season wins.
“We knew the game was going to come down to two or three big plays,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said.
“Our kids played hard all night. But we got outplayed, and we have to turn the page.’’