Matchup: Saturday at 4:00 PM Eastern Time in Kansas City, KS, the Minnesota State University Mavericks will play the Colorado State University-Pueblo ThunderWolves for the Division-II Football championship. Minnesota State finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the D2Football rankings, while Colorado State-Pueblo was No. 7.
Neither of these teams has ever won a national championship in football before. This is the first appearance for both schools in the title game.
How They Got Here:
The Minnesota State Mavericks rolled through the regular season, posting an 11-0 record and winning the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Their defense posted three shutouts (Against St. Cloud State, Minot State, and Wayne State), and they won every game by at least 13 points.
The Mavericks had a first round bye before taking on Pittsburgh State. This was a nail biter that MSU won in overtime, 24-21, to advance to the next round. Round 3 saw the team dominating intra-state rival Minnesota-Duluth, 44-17. Last week the Mavericks rolled to a 47-13 victory over Concord University, in a game where the 34-point win did not adequately reflect how dominant MSU was.
The Colorado State University-Pueblo ThunderWolves finished the regular season 10-1. The team’s lone defeat was a 23-22 loss at Fort Lewis on October 11. Following the loss the ThunderWolves rolled in their final five regular season games, winning by an average margin of 30 points.
The ThunderWolves also had a first round bye, then crushed Angelo State, 52-14. Their Round 3 matchup was against No. 8 Old Dominican, and they narrowly took home the victory, 31-28. Last weekend CSU-P defeated a very tough University of West Georgia squad, 10-7, to advance to the championship game.
Minnesota State Offense vs. Colorado State-Pueblo Defense
Minnesota State Offense: 42.9 points per game, 251.42 yards rushing per game, 208.5 yards passing per game.
Colorado State-Pueblo Defense: 13.7 points allowed per game, 104.8 yards rushing allowed per game, 194.3 yards passing allowed per game.
Colorado State-Pueblo Offense vs. Minnesota State Defense
Colorado State-Pueblo Offense: 35.1 points per game, 179.3 yards per game rushing, 227.3 yards per game passing.
Minnesota State Defense: 12.9 points allowed per game, 108.9 yards rushing allowed per game, 191.6 yards passing allowed per game.
Coaches: Todd Hoffner vs. John Wristen
Coach Hoffner is closing out his fifth season at Minnesota State University, and has turned this team into an absolute dynamo. Only one team has been within a touchdown of the Mavericks this season, and since the second round scare the MSU Coach has had his team rolling. Coach Hoffner has a 48-13 record, and this is his third trip to the NCAA Division-II playoffs.
Coach Wristen is in his seventh season as the Head Coach at CSU-P. The school did not have a football program when Coach Wristen was hired, so he has built this program from scratch, and has proven that he was clearly the right man for the job. The ThunderWolves went 4-6 their first season, but have had a winning record every year since.
Analysis: These are two coaches that have turned programs around to become Division-II powerhouses. Both of them get the most out of their teams. Edge: Even.
Quarterbacks: Ricky Lloyd vs. Chris Bonner
Since taking over the starting quarterback job Lloyd has vaulted this offense to new heights. Nick Pieruccini will see time as well, and he is a real dual threat, but Lloyd is the guy making this team go. Last weekend he did it all, posting a 14-18 day for 177 yards and 4 touchdowns, plus he ran for 36 yards and even caught a pass for 19 more. He is a great athlete who is the better passer of the two. The Mavericks QB is having a quality year with a 171.2 passer efficiency, 1629 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. Pieruccini has 1245 yards passing and 12 scores.
Chris Bonner is the ThunderWolves signal caller and he is a good one. Bonner struggled last weekend against a very tough UWG defense, going 10-25 for 157 yards and a touchdown, but he came up big when his team really needed him. This season he has passed for 3100 yards with 29 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions in 431 pass attempts. His accuracy can be a bit off at times (55.9 percent completion rate), but he makes plays when his team needs him.
Analysis: Both quarterbacks are playing a huge part in the success of their teams, but Lloyd is the better all-around talent. Edge: Minnesota State.
Connor Thomas is a beast for MSU. The 5-11, 205 pound junior is incredibly difficult to bring down, and he has speed to get around the corner. Thomas has 1338 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, with an impressive 6.0 yards per carry average. In the semifinal contest, Thomas rolled over Concord University, rushing for 123 yards and touchdown on just 14 carries. Andy Pfeiffer is Thomas’ backup, and when he enters the game there is not much drop-off. At 6-1, 210 pounds he has size and speed, and this season he has 693 yards rushing and 8 TDs. When Pieruccini is the quarterback he is a threat to run at any point. The freshman has 548 yards rushing and 7 scores.
The ThunderWolves have their own beast in Cameron McDondle. At just 5-8, 196, McDondle is proving that good things come in small packages. His 1901 yards is fourth in the country, and he has 16 touchdowns and an equally impressive 6.2 yards per carry average. His 305 carries proves he is durable and can handle being the focus of their offense. The few times that McDondle needs a rest, J.B. Matthews fills in admirably. The junior has 422 yards rushing and 3 scores.
Analysis: The running game is a real strength for both teams. No offense to Thomas, who is having an absolutely incredible year, but McDondle has proven to be one of the best tailbacks in Division-II. Edge: Colorado State-Pueblo.
Senior Dorian Buford has proven to be the favorite target of both Lloyd and Pieruccini. At 6-1, he has good size and can out battle most defenders for jump balls. The senior has 60 catches for 1007 yards and 15 touchdowns. Six other Mavericks players have at least 13 catches, led by Austin Rierder who has 33 catches for 596 yards and 7 TDs. TE Bryce Duncan has great size at 6-5, 250, and he has good hands as well. In the red zone he is a beast to contain. So far the junior has 25 catches for 269 yards and 7 touchdowns.
The ThunderWolves do not have one primary receiver that Bonner favorites. Instead, he has nine who have caught at least 15 passes this season. Kieren Duncan is the team leader with 44 catches for 706 yards and senior Paul Browning is second with 36 catches for 552 yards. Both receivers would have had much more impressive numbers, but each has missed time this season due to injuries (Duncan missed four games, Browning seven). Junior Jarred Radebaugh leads the team in touchdown receptions with six, and he has 32 catches for 360 yards.
Analysis: If Browning and Duncan would have had a full season under their belts it is likely that both would have eclipsed the numbers put up by Buford. CSU-P is just a bit deeper here. Edge: Colorad0 State-Pueblo.
The Mavericks have an outstanding offensive line with both size and experience. Seniors Chris Reed and Max Hofmeister both come in at 6-5, as does sophomore Luke Wendricks who weighs 350. Junior Herschel Prater is 6-6, 305, and if you add in 6-2, 290 senior Josh Meeker it is easy to see why this team has such great success offensively. There is also incredible depth at each position on the line.
The ThunderWolves do not nearly have the size that MSU has, but they are a very athletic group that works well as a unit. The strength of this unit is at the offensive tackle and center positions. Senior Scotland Coyle is the starting center, and he is a good one. He is a bit on the small side (6-3, 265), but has great instincts and is very intelligent. Senior Austin Payne and junior Zach Martinez are powerful tackles, who both come in at 6-6 with just 10 pounds difference between the two (Martinez is 301 and Payne 291).
Analysis: CSU-P has a very good offensive line who has great skill, but the Mavericks have great size and skill. Edge: Minnesota State.
The biggest playmaker on defense for either team is junior Joshua Gordon. He is just 6-2, 250, but no player on the field has as much sheer desire to make plays as Gordon. He has 17.5 sacks this season, including one last week against Concord. The junior is second on the team with 79 tackles, which is virtually unheard of for a defensive lineman to have that many tackles, but it is a testament to how good this young man is. There is a lot of experience and skill at the defensive tackle position, led by seniors Barry Ballinger and Bryan Keys.
The ThunderWolves have their own disruptive force in DE Darius Allen. The junior has 14 sacks this season, including two against West Georgia last weekend. He also has 5 forced fumbles. Allen is similar in size to Gordon (6-4, 251), and he will have an impact on this game. At the other end position is Morgan Fox, who has 11 sacks of his own. The two make the most dynamic combination in Division-II. NG Tony Campton is a perfect complement to these two. The 6-1, 291 pound junior takes on double and triple teams, freeing Allen and Fox, yet he still makes plays (50 tackles, 3 sacks).
Analysis: It is hard to go against a line like the Mavericks’ when they have someone like Gordon, but the trio of Allen, Fox, and Campton is just too tough. Edge: Colorado State-Pueblo.
6-3, 235 pound junior Tyler Henderson leads the Mavericks in tackles, and is a guy who can make plays all over the field. He is best along the line and at charging the quarterback (4.5 sacks, 117 tackles), but he can cover as well (1 interception, 9 pass breakups/defenses). He is a great all around talent. Senior Kris Fleigle is in the same kind of mold as Henderson – a guy who can cover and make plays in the backfield. Rob Myers usually winds up taking running backs and tight ends, and he is a great cover linebacker.
Joe Rosenbrock and Seth Brown are just playmakers. Rosenbrock leads the team in tackles with 99, and he is great at pursuing the ball and making plays (57 solo tackles). Brown is a sophomore, but he is already establishing himself as one of the best young linebackers in Division-II. He can do it all, recording 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, an interception, and 4 pass breakups. He is second on the team with 86 tackles, and the two combine to make a gruesome inside for the ThunderWolves. Senior Josiah Flack is a solid player who is a great leader. Ben Estica adds another pass rusher to this formidable attack (4.5 sacks).
Analysis: There are great playmakers on both teams. While CSU-P has a dynamic group, Henderson is a difference maker. Edge: Slight Edge to Minnesota State.
Minnesota State has a set of defensive backs that are amazingly skilled on balls in the air. Safeties Nathan Hancock and Cory Brent are both playmakers. Hancock leads the team with 6 interceptions and Brent has 2. Combined they have made 127 tackles and broken up 16 passes. Cornerbacks Rumeal Harris and Justin Otto cover well and are dangerous to throw against. Harris has proven to be a real ball-hawk with 5 interceptions and 27 pass defenses/breakups. Otto has 3 picks and 15 defenses/breakups. Teams who throw against this crew do so at their own risk. Harris and Hancock both had interceptions in last week’s game.
FS Jarrod Lacy is a real heavy hitter who gets involved in plays. He isn’t used to cover much or to attack the quarterback. He simply reads plays well and when he gets there he makes tackles. Seniors Stephen Dickens and C.J. Roberts are outstanding cornerbacks who each have 7 interceptions this season. They also have a combined 27 breakups. LaRon Tarkington is an outstanding safety who can do it all. The sophomore has 3 picks and a sack to go along with 62 tackles.
Analysis: Both teams have big-time playmakers, and they are all so much fun to watch as well. It is hard to pick which group is better, so I won’t. Edge: Even.
Alden Haffar handles the kicking duties, and he has done an adequate job, making 17-28 field goals with a long of 51. He is perfect inside the 30 (10-10), but just 7-18 beyond that mark. Darin Howell’s punt average is 36.8 and he has 22 punts downed inside the 20. Kyle Riggott is the primary kickoff return man. He has an average of 26.7 per return. Austin Reider’s punt return average is 14.1 and he has a return for a touchdown.
Greg O’Donnell has also proven to be adequate as the kicker for Colorado State-Pueblo. He has made 19 of 32 kicks with a long of 49. Ken Kester has had an outstanding season as the ThunderWolves punter, averaging 43.9 yards per punt with 31 downed inside the 20. The return game is impressive as well, with Daniel Wise posting a 22.8 yard per return average on kickoffs with 1 TD, and Stephan Dickens recording a gaudy 20.4 return average and 2 touchdowns on punts.
Analysis: CSU-P has an outstanding special teams’ game, who make a difference in games. MSU cannot compare to this group. Edge: Colorado State-Pueblo.
Outlook: This game pits two outstanding teams against one another. Each has great coaching staffs and playmakers on both sides of the ball. The key for this game for CSU-P will be how well they can run the ball. If McDondle gains at least 140 yards and keeps the ball out of the hands of Lloyd, the ThunderWolves have a great shot at winning this game. That will be a tall order. Minnesota State looks too good right night, and they have looked better with each passing game in this post-season. That is a scary thought for Colorado State-Pueblo. The ThunderWolves may keep it close through the half, but the Mavericks will dominate this game in the end, 34-17.
By Robert Pannier