Story and photo courtesy of Minnesota State Athletics
MANKATO, Minn. - With the game tied at ten with 8:51 left in the game, Minnesota State needed a clock-sustaining drive to put points on the board and they called on redshirt freshman running back Connor Thomas.
He ended a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run that gave the Mavericks a 17-10 victory over Missouri Western State in the NCAA Division II Football Championship Quarterfinal at Blakeslee Stadium.
“I just took the field with confidence,” said Thomas about the game-winning drive. “I knew we needed to get a score and it started with our o-line up front. I was feeling that cut-back really well and the receivers also made great blocks down field.”
Thomas ran the ball seven times on the game-winning drive for 46 yards culminating with the touchdown run.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of our offense on that last drive, running that ball down and score that touchdown was huge for program,” said acting head coach Aaron Keen.
Thomas gained 159 yards on the ground on 19 attempts leading the 289-yard ground attack for MSU Saturday afternoon. Jon Wolf gained 67 yards and a touchdown and Andy Pfeiffer added 47. The effort was the first-ever 100-yard output in Thomas’ career.
Thomas was the key on MSU’s lone touchdown drive of the first half. As part of a 5-play, 91-yard drive, he took a handoff from his own 15 and ran up the middle for a 52-yard gain to the Missouri Western State 33-yard line. A pair of Pfeiffer runs to them to the 20. Wolf then called his own number as he scampered down the left side for a 20-yard touchdown run giving the Mavericks a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Missouri Western State took the second half kickoff and scored quickly to tie the game. Quarterback Travis Partridge took it in from 35 yards out to cap a 5-play, 62-yard drive.
With the game tied going into the fourth quarter, MSU used ball control to win the game. The Mavericks had the ball first in the quarter and used up five minutes of the clock before it ended with a Stephen Juergens interception for MWSU and returned it to his own 47. MSU’s defense held the Griffons to a three-and-out without giving up a yard and forced them to punt. The game-winning drive followed where the Mavericks used up five and a half minutes off the clock. MSU held the ball for 12 of the 15 minutes of the final quarter.
Last week, the MSU defense picked off four Northwest Missouri State passes in the double overtime victory.
Today, they intercepted three more and they all came at opportune moments. Nathan Hancock picked off a Partridge pass late in the first half in his own end to thwart a Griffons rally. Justin Otto had his second huge interception in as many weeks when he picked off a pass from his own 4-yard line stopping a MWSU go-ahead drive attempt in the third quarter. Following Thomas’ winning touchdown, Earl Brooks intercepted a desperation heave from Partridge out of the end zone, icing the win for the Mavericks.
“Our defense is really relaxed,” said Brooks. “When our offense gives up the ball, we’re going to stop them (other team) three-and-out or get a turnover and get them the ball back. We have confidence like that.”
MSU’s defense held Harlon Hill finalist, Michael Hill, to 50 yards.
“I thought our defense did a tremendous job of shutting down the run,” said Keen. “Doing that gave us a shot to win that football game.
The Maverick defense was paced by sophomore linebacker Kris Fleigle who totaled nine stops. Brooks added eight stops while sophomore safety Nathan Hancock had six.
MSU (13-0) moves on to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Football Championship where it will play Valdosta State, 48-26 winners over Carson-Newman. The site for the game is yet to be determined.