Nov. 21, 2012
Minus coach, Mankato makes history
Get to know … Minnesota State Mankato
A look at the school, program and team that Northwest Missouri State meets in Saturday’s second round of the Division II playoffs.
Public university was founded in 1868, and now has an enrollment of more than 15,000 – more than twice Northwest Missouri State’s. It was known as Mankato State until 1998. MSU was the first public college in the U.S. to be led by a woman, suffragette Julia Spears, who was forced out in 1873 after only a year in office. The action prompted a protest that resulted in the expulsion of 30 students for insubordination, becoming known as the Sears Rebellion. The school also was the first in the U.S. to offer a master’s degree in forensics. Today, among other things, it’s the summer training home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
You might know
Graduates include ESPN football and basketball announcer Brad Nessler and former Best Buy president and COO Allen Lenzmeier.
The football program
In its 86th season, it has an overall record of 392-375-28. Mavericks are in their fifth season in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC). They managed just one winning season in 13 years from 1995-2007, including an 0-11 finish in 2003, before bringing in South Dakota offensive coordinator Todd Hoffner as head coach in 2008. His first four teams went 42-9, but Hoffner’s future is uncertain after he was charged in August with two felonies related to video images of naked children – his young son and daughters – found on his school-issued cell phone. He and his wife insist that he was recording innocent family silliness; he has been on paid leave while the case goes through the courts.
Sixteen meetings dating to 1972, an even 8-8 split. Last MSU win was in 1995. The two programs played six times in a seven-year stretch from 2000-06, each time in the season’s first or second week, and Northwest had to work to win all six (by 6, 17, 11, 7, 3 and 17 points).
Five previous appearances, a 2-5 record. MSU last made the field in 2009. The Mavericks won their opener in 1991 and 1993 to reach the quarterfinals (taking out Missouri Southern in ’93), but haven’t advanced beyond that. They’re also seeking their first playoff win at home. Their only previous game in Blakeslee Stadium, in 2009’s first round, was a 27-24 loss to Hillsdale.
Mavericks are one of four remaining D-II unbeatens, rolling to an 11-0 regular-season finish that’s the best in school history and claiming their first overall NSIC championship. (They won the league’s South Division. Once-beaten Minnesota Duluth won the North, also making the D-II playoffs and falling to Missouri Western in triple overtime last week). MSU had one close call in mid-October; it rallied from a 24-10 deficit in the final 6:20 of regulation vs. Southwest Minnesota State and needed double-overtime to win 34-31. Southwest, which threw for 207 yards and three TDs, wound up with a 4-7 record.
Seeded first in the NCAA’s Super Region 3, earning a first-round playoff bye. MSU is ranked fifth in D-II by the nation’s coaches, second by D2football.com. (Northwest is seeded fourth in the region and ranked No. 13 and No. 10, respectively.)
Northwest already has seen three of the nation’s top 10 rushing teams, beating Missouri Southern and Harding and falling by a point to Missouri Western. Now, it tackles the 18th-ranked rushing attack. Mankato runs 69% of the time, averaging just under five yards a carry and 230 yards a game. Tailbacks Connor Thomas and Andy Pfeiffer, a redshirt freshman and sophomore, have a combined 1,272 yards and 15 TDs. Quarterback John Wolf and backup Mitch Brozovich have run for another 875 yards and 13 TDs. It’s hard to overlook a offensive line that zone blocks effectively and, on average, stands 6-3 and weighs 302 pounds. Four of the five big uglies came out of Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.
As for the passing game
It ranks just 122nd among the 158 teams in Division II. But Wolf, an athletic, 6-4 junior who up to this year split time as a running back and receiver, is efficient. He has completed 62% of his passes, thrown for 1,302 yards and 10 TDs and been intercepted just twice. Senior Adam Thielen gives him an all-conference possession receiver (60 catches for 937 yards and seven TDs). Redshirt freshman Kyle Riggott can stretch the field (30 catches for a 16.7-yard average and three TDs).
More on Thielen
He’s the NSIC’s top punt returner, averaging 11.4 yards. He broke a 70-yarder for a touchdown in a regular season-closing, 70-7 rout of Upper Iowa.
This is where it starts for the Mavericks, who held Minot State to minus-44 yards rushing and 32 yards of total offense, St. Cloud State to 14 yards rushing and all 11 regular-season opponents to an average of 264.1 of total offense – second-lowest in Division II. The cornerstone is junior end Chris Schaudt, a 6-4, 270-pound wrecking machine who has piled up 8½ sacks and 14 overall tackles for losses, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception. All-conference cornerback Robert Gunderson has a team-high four interceptions. MSU forced 13 turnovers, including nine interceptions, in its last four regular-season victories.
Also credit the defense
Average starting field position for the MSU offense is just beyond its 41-yard line.
The kicking game
Junior Sam Brockshus is accurate, making 17 of 21 field goal attempts, and he has some range. Longest is 47 yards. He’s 5-for-5 in his career from the 40 and beyond.
The acting coach
Aaron Keen was entering his second season as offensive coordinator and head coach when he stepped in for Hoffner in August. This month, he was named the NSIC’s coach of the year. He spent three previous years as quarterbacks and receivers coach and offensive coordinator at Nebraska-Omaha and, before that, five years as head coach at Division III Illinois College in Jacksonville. The Wyoming native has some Show-Me State in his background; he was a three year starter at QB and an honorable-mention All-American at Washington University in St. Louis in the early ’90s.
On other playing fields
The women’s basketball team won the Division II national championship in 2009, and the Mavericks’ baseball team reached the D-II College World Series earlier this year. Football’s competition for campus affections, however, is hockey, in which the MSU men and women compete in Division I. Men’s home games have drawn an average crowd of 3,747 thus far this season, not far off football’s 4,210.
By: Steve Wieberg
The greatest season in Minnesota State Mankato’s 86-year football-playing history began in crisis.
Saturday, on what’s forecast to be a cool but idyllic fall afternoon in the Minnesota River Valley, the Mavericks will carry a perfect record and top regional seed into a second-round Division II playoff showdown with Northwest Missouri State. Some three months earlier – just a couple of weeks before opening their season at Minot State – puzzled players and assistants were watching as head coach Todd Hoffner was called off the practice field and escorted away.
Five days later, he was charged with two felony counts in a confusing child pornography-related case that has attracted national attention.
Hoffner has been on paid administrative leave since then, professing his innocence but cut off from his team. On his school-issued cell phone, authorities say they found videos of his son and two daughters, ranging in age from 5-9, nude and behaving lewdly. Both Hoffner and his wife insist that the recordings merely show dancing and other innocent childhood antics, and the coach’s attorney has moved to have the charges dismissed.
Through it all, a team with talent and promise – but only five senior starters and 29 freshmen and sophomores in the two-deep lineup – was left to make what it could of the season.
“Our guys were pretty tough, and had great resolve,” says Aaron Keen, their second-year offensive coordinator and associate head coach, who was named acting head coach. “And they really had great purpose at that point. They knew what they wanted to accomplish. They knew what kind of work it was going to take.”
Beginning with a 44-10 rout of Minot State, they put together a remarkable run: the school’s first 11-0 regular-season finish and first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship. Mankato’s defense has been dominant, ranked second in the country overall. Its running game has been prolific, operating behind a 302-pounds-a-man offensive line and piling up 492 yards and seven touchdowns in a 70-7 dismantling of Upper Iowa two weeks ago.
That secured the No. 1 seed in the NCAA’s Super Region 3 and a first-round playoff bye, setting up Saturday’s game in Mankato’s Blakeslee Stadium against three-time national champion Northwest.
The Mavericks are making their first playoff appearance in three years and sixth in their history. Twice, they’ve gotten as far as the quarterfinals. Never have they survived beyond that.
“We haven’t really sat down and talked about how far we can go or what the ceiling is,” Keen says. “I do know that we play some darn good defense and we’re able to run the football. And if you’ve got those two ingredients, you usually can be fairly successful when you play the better teams.”
Beyond that is clear and uncommon resilience. Hoffner’s case remains unresolved and hanging over the school and its football program. The Mavericks have played through it.
Won in spite of it.
“What we’ve tried to do,” says Keen, who spent five years as a head coach at Division III Illinois College, “is limit any change in routine for these guys and hope they respond in a positive way. And they certainly have.
“At that point in camp (when the case arose), it was all about preparing for Minot State, taking a 12-hour bus ride and being faced with the challenge of a new team in our conference that we knew very little about. Our guys were able to focus on that, and then we just kind of moved on.”
“It’s not a matter of who's coaching us,” standout defensive end Chris Schaudt told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a matter of how we approach the game and how we control our effort.”
Northwest poses a challenge. Good athletes all over the field. The best passing game Mankato has seen this year. A long playoff resume.
Keen got to know and admire the Bearcats in three years as quarterbacks and receivers coach and offensive coordinator at Nebraska-Omaha, a Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival before UNO shut down its program after the 2010 season. He was calling plays when James Franklin was a freshman at UNO and rushing for 766 yards and team-high 10 TDs.
Franklin headed for Northwest Missouri State when the program disbanded. Three defensive teammates would land at Mankato, Marcus Hall-Oliver and Jordan Hale now starting for the Mavericks at linebacker and safety, respectively, and Nathan Hancock backing up at safety.
Keen recalls his three meetings with Northwest: losses by 42, 10 and 25 points from 2008-10.
“It would be no secret that I’m very much looking forward to playing these guys,” he says. “There’s nothing better than having a former national title team coming into your place and having an opportunity to play them in the playoffs.
“I think our guys are real excited about the opportunity. What our chances are, we don’t know. We’ll just go out there, put our best game forward and see how things turn out.”
Necks bowed, the Mavericks have been doing that for 11 weeks now. Hoffner is out of sight and out of contact. “There’s no communication,” Keen says.
They’ve made it work. Effective crisis management.
Steve Wieberg wrapped up a nearly 30-year career with USA TODAY in July. A native Missourian who lives just outside the Kansas City area, he was part of the national newspaper’s original startup staff in 1982 and focused his coverage on college football and basketball and NCAA issues. He also worked eight summer and winter Olympics.
Wieberg is a longtime member of the Football Writers Association of America and an inductee into U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame. His work has earned more than two dozen national writing awards.
In October 2007, he was named by The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the “10 Most Powerful People in College Sports.”
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