MANKATO – Under any circumstances, a season opener between Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato would attract attention. But when the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference released its 2015 schedule four years ago, no one could have envisioned the exquisite symmetry that will play out Thursday night at Mankato’s Blakeslee Stadium.
UMD’s season ended on that field last December, as it lost to the Mavericks in the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs. Thursday night, the Bulldogs get the rare chance to start fresh in the same place against the same opponent — and the rematch is all they have thought about since that dismal day.
“It’s kind of ironic that it worked out that way,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “After seeing the look in our seniors’ eyes last year when they walked off that field, knowing we were coming back here to open this season, this has been a focus of ours.”
The revenge factor adds one more layer of intrigue to a blockbuster kickoff between rival state schools. The rising Mavericks, whose only loss last season came in the national championship, are ranked No. 1 nationally in most preseason polls. Third-ranked UMD has declared “Going Back” as its motto for the season, aiming to add to its history of conference and NCAA championships — starting with that long-awaited return trip to Mankato.
“At UMD, we like to say, ‘Tradition never graduates,’ ” said Bulldogs quarterback Drew Bauer, a junior who is 24-3 in two seasons as a starter. “And our tradition here is winning. Those [NCAA champion] teams from 2008 and 2010 leave some big shoes to fill, and we want to go back and win another national championship.’’
UMD and MSU Mankato have been the NSIC’s top teams for the past four years, ratcheting up a natural rivalry. In the seven seasons since the NSIC went to a two-division format, the Bulldogs have won or shared the NSIC North title every year, while the Mavericks have won or shared the NSIC South crown five times. The teams tied for the overall championship last year with identical 11-0 records.
Bauer said the competition between the two has escalated during his two seasons, as MSU’s growing success allowed it to settle in with the Bulldogs among the nation’s elite D-II programs. Since 2008, the Mavericks have gone 72-16 and made five trips to the NCAA tournament. Over the same span, UMD is 86-10, making the NCAA playoffs in all seven years and winning two national titles.
MSU coach Todd Hoffner said there is plenty of familiarity between coaches and players on both sides, in part because the schools often compete for the same recruits — adding another angle to the rivalry.
“There are no secrets,” he said. “Guys from both teams take a lot of pride in what they do and compete hard. The respect level is very high.”
Hoffner knows how emotional the Bulldogs will be after last season’s 44-17 loss in the playoffs. UMD, which was 13-0 and ranked No. 2 behind the Mavericks, committed four turnovers — after losing the ball only 10 times in the previous 13 games — and was outscored 34-7 in the second half. The Bulldogs return 12 starters, including running back Logan Lauters, the fifth-leading rusher in program history, and Bauer, who was named the NSIC North preseason offensive player of the year.
MSU Mankato retains 13 starters from last season’s 14-1 team, headed by two All-America selections — defensive end Joshua Gordon and linebacker Tyler Henderson — and running back Connor Thomas, who last year became the Mavericks’ all-time leading rusher with 3,231 career yards. Quarterbacks Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini, who split time last season, also return.
Both coaches expect Thursday’s game to be a physical affair, which likely will be decided by turnovers and field position. And the Bulldogs have more to avenge than last season’s playoff loss. Their last regular-season defeat was to MSU in September 2013; since then, they have won 19 in a row, the third-longest regular-season winning streak in program history. UMD also has won 15 consecutive season openers, with their last loss coming to the Mavericks in 1999.
“We’re going to have to be prepared to play playoff football in the first game, which is extremely hard to do,” Hoffner said. “But our guys are really focused. They’re not overlooking anything.’’