FOLLOW THE DII FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Live updates from Texas
There is just one game left in the 2019 DII football season. West Florida and Minnesota State will battle at McKinney ISD Stadium in McKinney, Texas at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 21. You can watch all the action on ESPNU.
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We are guaranteed a first-time champion as two recent national runners-up look to make program history. Let's break down what you need to know and see if we can figure out how the game will play out.
West Florida vs. Minnesota State: By the numbers
If you look at the stat sheets, there is no surprise that the Mavericks found their way to McKinney. Minnesota State pairs the best scoring offense in DII football — a monstrous 48 points per game — with the best total defense in DII, which allows just 247.2 yards and 12.9 points per game, second to only Harding. This team has broken the 60-point barrier four times and had a three-week run where Minnesota State defeated its opponents by a combined score of 217-24.
Now, there is one big number you have to look at when it comes to West Florida that makes it all the more impressive that the unseeded Argonauts are in Texas: .675. That's the overall winning percentage of West Florida's opponents this season, the second-toughest schedule faced in all of DII football.
West Florida made its way through a Gulf South Conference that usually sends three or four teams to the tournament before its well-documented run though the bracket began. The Argos ended No. 1 Valdosta State's 25-game winning streak before ending Lenoir-Rhyne's 15-game home winning streak before ending Ferris State's chance at a second-straight national title. All three games were against undefeated teams on their home turf.
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Players to watch
If you don't know the name Austin Reed, you will. West Florida's redshirt-freshman quarterback has come of age this postseason and had a monster debut for the Argos. He's thrown for 3,561 yards and 34 touchdowns on the season, and has been a machine in the tournament. In four games this postseason, he's put up 1,122 yards, 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He spreads the wealth, but Tate Lehtio and Quinten Randolph are his favorite targets -- two 900-yard receivers with 14 total touchdowns.
When it comes to Minnesota State, it all starts with Nate Gunn. Talk about machines, Gunn has been a model of consistency during his three-year run in Mankato, averaging 1,622 yards and 21 touchdowns per season. West Florida allows 168.1 yards rushing a game, so you can be sure that Gunn, who has scored eight touchdowns in three tournament games, will get a healthy dose of the rock. That opens things up in the passing game for the two-headed monster of Ryan Schlichte and JD Ekowa. Whichever one is under center, they are looking for the long-ball to the reliable Shane Zylstra, who has 1,531 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
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Defensively, Minnesota State is led by a trio of senior linebackers in Alex Goettl, Zach Robertson, and Destyn Woody, but this defense is stacked with talent at every level. If you get past Brayden Thomas (who has a team-high 11 sacks) and those linebackers, you have to deal with a secondary with Cole Schroedermeier (five interceptions) and Cade Johnson (four interceptions).
For West Florida, Gael Laurent leads the pass rush with seven sacks. The Argos seem to thrive against the pass, allowing just 171.9 yards per game and nine touchdowns through the air on the season. If they can take Zylstra out of the game and focus on Gunn, they may have a chance.
West Florida vs. Minnesota State: Who will win?
West Florida is the big storyline here. Just what can the Argos do next?
It's simply amazing what head coach Pete Shinnick has done with this program. In just four years of existence — yep, the Argos have only had a DII football program for four years — Shinnick has led two very different teams to the championship game. Both times they were the underdog, a No. 6 seed in 2017 and not seeded in the new format this year.
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That's a lot of road battles against DII football's best, but unfortunately for the Argos, as in 2017, I think West Florida falls just short again.
Minnesota State is incredibly balanced — as is West Florida, make no mistake — but the Mavericks have superstars everywhere on the field. Gunn is a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, Zylstra is the leading receiver in DII football, Goettl is a Campbell Trophy finalist and offensive lineman Evan Heim is an All-American up front. The Mavericks are also undefeated, which means West Florida is facing off against a perfect team for the fourth game in a row.
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This won't be a blow out. While Minnesota State is dominant against the rush, it has allowed 18 touchdowns through the air, meaning Reed may be able to find some holes. We already mentioned Gunn will have an advantage over West Florida's 97th-ranked rush defense.
But, West Florida is too good, has too much swagger, and quite frankly, Reed has proven he won't back down from anyone, keeping the Argos in any fight to the final minute. And that's what I think it comes down to. Like last year, which was a high-scoring affair decided in the final seconds, whoever has the ball last will likely win.
2019 DII football champion: Minnesota State over West Florida, 35-31