DII football preview: Minnesota State opens season setting sights on return to playoffs
MANKATO, Minn. — In college football, 11 games typically make up a season.
It's that 12th game that makes a season special. For four straight years, Minnesota State got to play at least 12 games, earning an invitation to the Division II playoffs. But that streak ended last season.
"You want to go out on top," senior safety Corey Brent said. "There's a sense of pride, that seniors took me to the playoffs when I was younger, and I owe that to the younger players.
"I want to help the young guys build a dynasty, but last year, we didn't have the right mindset. We talked about winning a national championship, so all eyes were on that, and we didn't keep our eyes on the things you have to do to get there."
The Mavericks open their 2017 season on Thursday against Mary at Bismarck, North Dakota. Minnesota State went 8-3 last season, but that wasn't enough to win a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship or go to a playoff game.
"That last game, it was a weird feeling," senior receiver Ty Dennis said. "It was just a game, not much to play for. I felt bad for all the seniors who gave everything they had for four years. We need to get the ball rolling because that 12th game is pretty special."
The Mavericks struggled some in all three phases last season, committing too many turnovers, not getting off the field consistently on third down and having shaky kicking. Coach Todd Hoffner said he feels much better about this team after a summer of individual workouts and three weeks of fall practice.
"I think we've done everything, as a staff and team, we wanted to do in the offseason," Hoffner said. "We're where we need to be right now, and I really like our focus, demeanor and resilient attitude."
The offense averaged only 33.3 points, more than a touchdown less than previous seasons, with 18 turnovers and a 44 percent third-down conversion rate, which limited possession time. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Schlichte will take over at quarterback this year after gaining limited experience as a backup last season.
"The things he's done in practice have been positive," Hoffner said. "Nobody's perfect, and he has a ton of room for improvement. But he's shown leadership and productivity, and I'm excited to see him."
Schlichte can be helped by an offensive line that showed some improvement as the 2016 season went along. Sam Schrauth is starting his third season, though he's moved from guard to center. Guard Hunter Toppel and tackle Boyd Draeger are new to the group, but Hoffner said that eight offensive linemen will play each game.
"The whole group is leaner and stronger," Hoffner said. "I really like their mentality. We'll see how they adapt and handle changes once we start playing games."
The running back corps is new, led by South Dakota transfer Nate Gunn and redshirt freshman Justin Taormina. That group has caught the attention of the defense with its hard-nosed running, and Hoffner said the test will be how the backs hold up in games.
"They've both broken some tackles (in practice), and they both have been tackled and held onto the ball," Hoffner said. "Once they've been hit five, 10 times in a game and hold onto the ball, we'll know what we have there."
The most experience is in the receiving group where senior Ty Dennis and sophomore Shane Zylstra were game-breakers. Dennis made a team-high 39 receptions for 630 yards with eight touchdowns and a long catch of 58 yards, while Zylstra had 29 catches for 499 yards and seven touchdowns with a long catch of 74 yards. Justin Arnold, the slot receiver, had 24 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns.
The tight end group is deep and dependable.
"We're still a run-first team, and if we can pound the ball, that will open the pass game," Dennis said. "When we play our tempo, that's tough for the other team to match."
The defense gave up 23.1 points per game, struggling against the run. There were only 17 takeaways, about half of previous seasons, and opponents converted on 46 percent of their third-down plays.
"Last year is something we don't want to do again," Brent said. "We have to be more aggressive, and you can't make big plays if you don't try to make big plays. We weren't getting in people's faces like we had in the past. We just have to get back and make the most of our opportunities."
The front four is the strength of the defense, starting with ends Evan Perrizo and Jayme LaPlante and tackles Joel Ngoyi and Zach Dodge.
Linebacker Michael Palme started last season, while Alex Goettl and Brendan Chrystal saw limited action.
In the backfield, Brent and cornerback Larry Moore were starters last season, and they'll be paired with safety Jerry Nash III and cornerback Jack Curtis.
"We have a lot of new faces, but people don't see what I see in practice," Brent said. "We have young guys who are taking steps to be successful.
"I appreciate that (the Mavericks were ranked No. 1 in the Northern Sun coaches' preseason poll), but I think we'll show that we deserve that. Whatever we lack in experience, we make up for in talent."
The kicking game should be improved with transfer Casey Bednarski. Last season, Minnesota State was 6-of-9 in field goal attempts, with a long of 33 yards.
"The new guys are going to have to gel with the veterans, and everybody is going to have to play like they have something to prove," Hoffner said. "If we have the right attitude and mindset, I think we can be a really good football team."
This article is written by Chad Courrier from The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.