Less than 90 seconds after kick-off and staring at 3-and-6 on their own 29-yard line, MSU-Mankato junior quarterback Jon Wolf found Kyle Riggott all by his lonesome.
The redshirt freshman went 67 yards before a shoestring tackle by Brett Jensen, giving MSU the ball at the 4-yard line. Two plays later, Wolf rushed across the goal line—the first time that the Cougars surrendered an opening-drive touchdown this season.
But it was hardly the only thing that went wrong for the 17th-ranked Cougars (8-2, 8-2 NSIC) in their 27-13 loss at No. 6 Minnesota State, Mankato (10-0, 10-0 NSIC) on Saturday.
"We knew all week that Mankato is a really good football team and we're a really good football team," said USF head football coach Jed Stugart. "We just made a few mistakes that we don't normally make."
"We've been treating this whole season like a playoff game, these kids saw where they were picked in the conference and I think they had a lot to prove and I think that's why this stings more for them," Stugart added.
"It was a tough loss, all the credit goes to Mankato," said USF quarterback Taylor Perkins, who completed 22 of 37 passes for 203 yards. "They just outperformed us today and that's the bottom line."
"We knew we were in a dogfight and came out swinging but just didn't get it done," he added.
USF senior wide receiver Jeremiah Oates, who entered the game with a league-best 12 receiving touchdowns, was knocked out of the game after absorbing a hard hit on a second quarter punt return. The Cougars were also without the services of senior starting right guard Jared Vlotho for much of the game.
"That's obviously a blow," Stugart said. "Jared is a senior and one of our best linemen but I was proud of Sam Dooyema stepping in and Jeremiah has been a playmaker for us but other guys step up."
"A lot of teams fold in that situation, and this team doesn't fold and I'm proud of that," he added. "I'm proud they kept digging but unfortunately that's two tough losses for us."
MSU-Mankato won this one with stellar defense and a 100% red zone conversion rate. The Mavericks also took advantage of a Perkins interception in the second quarter, which led to their second touchdown of the game.
"They did a great job of mixing up our game plan and I had a dumb pick when they dropped the defense in," Perkins said. "I shouldn't have thrown the ball and that was a big swing in the game."
After the Mavericks' opening strike, the squads traded punts before the Cougars received the ball on their own 36-yard line. From there, they executed a 14-play, 61-yard drive that stalled on third-and-goal at the MSU 3. Senior kicker Braden Wieking chipped it in from 20 yards out and the first quarter would end with the Mavericks leading by a 7-3 score.
The home-standing Mavericks built a 17-point cushion in the second quarter scoring on all three possessions, getting field goals of 22 and 44 yards from Sam Brockshus and a six-yard touchdown run from Connor Thomas after the Perkins pick.
After the turnover, the Cougars had third-and-seven at their 29-yard line when Perkins was hauled down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
It was a sign of things to come for the Cougars' signal caller, who was sacked five times in the game, a season-best mark for the Mavericks defense.
"The gameplan was there, the execution lacked a little bit but like I said, all credit to them," Perkins said. "When you can rush four and drop seven that's tough."
After a quiet third quarter that saw no change in score, the Cougars marched 90 yards down the field to the Maverick 5. After a failed pass attempt on third-and-goal, Wieking converted from 22 yards out to cut the Mavericks' lead to 20-6.
On the ensuing possession, Wolf found Adam Thielen for a 40-yard score to make it a 27-6 ballgame at the 11:14 mark of the fourth quarter.
USF moved the ball to the MSU 14 on its next drive but Perkins was sacked for a loss of seven on third-and-10—a play that knocked off his helmet and forced him on the sidelines for the next play. The Cougars would turn the ball over on downs when backup quarterback Calvin Jacobson's pass to Kendrick Celestine fell short on fourth-and-17.
The Cougar defense stood tall on the next series as they forced a Maverick fumble that sophomore Thad Campbell fell on at the MSU 11 yard-line. After a 10-yard strike from Perkins to Austin Van Hove, Perkins coasted into the end zone. The score kept alive the Cougars' seven-year streak of recording at least one touchdown in every game. USF hasn't been kept out of the end zone since a 55-0 drubbing by Carroll College in 2005.
The comeback would fall short, as MSU recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
MSU held USF to 246 yards, including minus-3 in the second quarter. Kristian Porter ran just four times for nine yards.
The Mavericks held Perkins' favorite target junior wideout Carrington Hanna in check. Hanna, who entered the game averaging 88.2 yards per game, was limited to four catches for 38 yards.
Porter caught four passes for 52 yards, including a 34-yard grab in the third quarter. He tied for the team-best with Van Hove, who had 52 yards on seven catches.
Senior linebacker Eric Anderson paced the Cougar defense with 11 tackles (eight solo) and three TFL for a total of 13 yards. He also punished MSU's quarterback with a 10-yard sack. Matt White was credited with nine tackles. Michael Frericks, Brett Jensen and John Tidwell each had seven tackles.
Wieking finished 2-for-2 on field goal attempts to move into second all-time at USF in scoring, with 386 points.
"Our season isn't over," Perkins finished. "We can only control next week and that's what we're going to do."
The Cougars will host Wayne State in their regular season finale. Kick-off is scheduled for noon at Bob Young Field.
Courtesy: USF Athletics