The Colorado State University-Pueblo ThunderWolves clearly established that they were the better team on this day, holding the No. 1 scoring team in Division-II football scoreless on route to a 13-0 victory over Minnesota State University. It was the first National Championship in school history, and made a winner of a football program that just seven years ago didn’t exist.
Neither team was able to muster much of an attack in the first quarter as both defenses came to prove that they were the dominant group in Division-II football. Both teams ranked in the top four in scoring defense, and they were also each in the top four in interceptions. Scoring was going to be at a premium on this day and that became apparent from the start.
Minnesota received the opening kickoff and looked to open the scoring as they had done all season long. The Mavericks has scored touchdowns on their opening drive in 10 of their 14 games this season, including in each of the last five weeks. The first two plays of the drive yielded nine yards, setting up a third and 1. Mavericks’ quarterback Ricky Lloyd went back looking to set up a screen to his tight end, but Joe Rosenbrock read the play perfectly and dropped Bryce Duncan for a one yard loss. That forced MSU to punt.
Now it was time for the Minnesota State defense to step on. ThunderWolves quarterback Chris Bonner was looking to go deep to Paul Browning on their first play, but cornerback Justin Otto positioned himself perfectly for the interception, giving MSU back the ball.
The opening drives showcased the struggles that both teams were going to have moving the ball. CSU-P running back Cameron McDondle was finding no room to run early on, as the defensive line of Minnesota State was shutting him down. Meanwhile, the ThunderWolves defense was giving Lloyd no place to throw the ball, and running back Connor Thomas, who was battling the flu, was also finding that there were no holes to run through.
With 5:20 left in the quarter, Colorado State-Pueblo began to move the ball. McDondle was still struggling, but Bonner was beginning to warm up. He completed passes to Browning for 14- and 15-yards on the drive, finally moving the ball to the Minnesota State 27-yard line. It was the first time that either team had been on the opposing side of the field, but the drive would stall when Bonner’s pass fell incomplete on third and 2. Greg O’Donnell attempted a 44-yard field goal, but his kick sailed wide right keeping the game scoreless. It was the sixth miss in his last 10 kicks.
That prompted Minnesota State Coach Todd Hoffner to turn to freshman Nick Pieruccini and the change looked like it would pay off immediately. The freshman’s first pass went for 29-yards to Dorian Buford. He later hit a 12-yard pass Jeff Burns to move the ball into the red zone. The Mavericks reached the 8-yard line, but the CSU-P stiffened forcing a 27-yard field goal attempt. On the attempt Josh Bredl burst up the middle, blocking the kick. Stephan Dickens picked up the ball and returned it 27-yards to the ThunderWolves 37. That was the seventh blocked kick of the season by CSU-P (2 field goals and 5 punts).
The special team’s play was a huge spark for Colorado State-Pueblo. On the second play of the drive, McDondle finally found a little bit of room and then did the rest on his own, shaking three tackles before finally being tackled after a 34-yard gain. Six plays later the ThunderWolves would see the drive stall at the MSU 10. O’Donnell hit the 27-yard field goal, and it was 3-0 CSU-P.
The Pueblo defense held the Mavericks to three-n-out on their next drive, giving Bonner the ball back at their own 31 with 5:30 left in the half. McDondle was still finding it hard to find room to run, but J.B. Matthews filled in on a couple of plays and had 15 total yards on the two carries. The ThunderWolves were able to move the ball MSU 18, where it was third and five. Bonner went looking for his big receiver in the end zone, and Browning delivered, wrestling the ball away from Otto for the touchdown. That made it 10-0 heading into half-time.
The Mavericks offense was finding nothing was working for them. MSU had just 140 total yards in the first half and only six first downs. The ThunderWolves defense was making huge plays on first down, forcing MSU into third and long situations which resulted in the Mavericks converting only two of eight third down opportunities.
Meanwhile, Bonner was warming up as the half progressed. He went to the break 11-18 for 118 yards and a touchdown. Browning was his favorite receiver through 30 minutes, making 4 catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. McDondle, the No. 4 rusher in Division-II football, had 55 yards on 11 carries at the break.
CSU-P had scored on their last two possessions of the first half, and that trend carried over into the second. The ThunderWolves received the opening kickoff and, after a 31-yard return by Daniel Wise, they began the drive at their own 41. McDondle was warming up at the end of the second quarter, and he began the third with gusto. On the first play of the drive he broke two tackles before finally being dragged down 19-yards later. Two plays later he took a little swing pass from Bonner and ran 30-yards before being forced out of bounds at the MSU 11-yard line. Now it was time for the Mavericks defense to stiffen, and they were able to hold the ThunderWolves to just three yards, setting up fourth and 7. Coach John Wristen settled for a 24-yard field goal attempt and O’Connell hit it to make it 13-0.
It might as well have been 1000 to 0 at that point, because the CSU-P defense was simply not giving the MSU offense any time to make plays. On the Mavericks next possession, they had a third and 1 at the Colorado State-Pueblo 46, but Lloyd was stuffed for a one yard loss by Morgan Fox to force a punt.
On their next possession, Lloyd was sacked for a 7-yard loss on the first play, but he responded with a 17-yard pass to Kyle Riggott for a first down. MSU got a huge 11-yard run by Connor Thomas on the next play, but it was called back on a holding call. Three plays later the Mavericks were forced to punt again.
At the end of the third quarter Pieruccini was trying to find anything to give his team a chance to get back into the game. His pass to Duncan on third and 8 gave the Mavericks a first down at their own 46. Three plays later MSU was faced with a third and 10, and the CSU-P defense came up big again. Bredl chased down the MSU quarterback, sacking him for a 4-yard loss and forcing another punt.
While the ThunderWolves defense was shutting down the Mavericks offense, the defense for MSU was keeping their team in the game. Since the field goal that started the second half, the Mavericks defense was shutting down the CSU-P offense. The ThunderWolves offense had two three-n-outs, and McDondle was being held in check.
Minnesota State’s last two possessions ended with big plays by the CSU-P defense. With 7:37 left in the game, it was third and 20 at the Mavericks 18. Lloyd attempted to get free to make a play but Morgan Fox and Darius Allen dropped him for a sack, forcing a punt.
On their next possession it was Allen again. With just under three minutes left in the game, the Mavericks had the ball at the CSU-P 42. On third and 8, Lloyd went back to pass but was finding no one open. As he moved to his right Allen tracked him down, sacking Lloyd for a 9-yard loss. One play later the Mavericks QB was forced to run, but fell 6-yards short of the first down marker, turning the ball over on downs.
From there the ThunderWolves were able to run out the clock. The final dagger was on third and 4, when it looked like McDondle was going to be tackled short of the first down marker, but he stiff armed his way around the corner, running for 15-yards and the first down. Three victory formations later, Colorado State University-Pueblo was the NCAA Division-II National Champions.
After the game an emotional John Wristen talked about the thrill of building a program from scratch into National Champions in seven years. “It’s a tribute to these young men and the coaching staff. They put in the hard work and made this program into a National Champion.”
The ThunderWolves recorded the first shutout in the Division-II National Championship in 17 years. Allen led the team with 8 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and was named the Co-Player of the Game by the Minor League Sports Report. Josh Bredl was the other co-Player of the Game, recording a sack and blocking the field goal. Overall, the team had 4 sacks and nine tackles for a loss. MSU was just 5-15 on third down conversions, and only reached the red zone one time.
Bonner finished the game 17-30 for 191 yards and a TD. McDondle struggled at times, but when they needed him to deliver he did. He finished with 125 yards on 28 carries. Browning did not have much an impact in the second half, but he finished the game with 5 catches for 84 yards and a score.
Lloyd completed 15-21 passes for the Mavericks, but only had 99 yards passing. He added 12 rushes for 84 yards as well.
This was an absolutely dominating defensive effort. The Colorado State University-Pueblo ThunderWolves finished the season 14-1, and have the first National Championship in school history. This was an exciting way for this senior laden team to close out their careers.
By Robert Pannier