Following a three-week wait, the 54th annual Mineral Water Bowl got off to a fast start on Saturday afternoon at Tiger Stadium between Winona State University and the University of Nebraska-Kearney. Unfortunately for the Warriors, it was the UNK Lopers who put 15 points on the board in the first six minutes and led wire-to-wire in a 50-33 decision.
Winona State’s defense entered the season finale allowing just 16.6 points/game, but was gashed by the Lopers’ option offense in the loss. UNK rushed for 427 yards and six touchdowns, including 240 yards on the ground in the first half to take a 36-19 advantage into halftime. Loper quarterback TJ Davis accounted for 144 of those rushing yards and four scores while throwing for another touchdown.
The Warriors did force a pair of takeaways, including an interception by Cole Monckton and a fumble recovery by Alex Evans. Winona State concludes the year with 29 forced turnovers – a mark that ranks seventh in the country this season. The Warriors’ 21 interceptions this season were the fifth-most among all NCAA Division II teams.
Saturday’s tilt started with a three-and-out by the WSU offense, preceding UNK’s lightning-quick scoring drive on the other end. The Lopers needed just two plays, a pair of rushes, to find the end zone on the feet of Davis who scrambled 54 yards for the first points of the game. UNK converted its two-point attempt, and the same sequence would follow. The Warriors next possession went backward, and Davis rushed for 39 yards on two plays for another scored and a 15-0 lead.
Winona State’s next offensive possession lasted 14 plays and covered 57 yards, but stalled in the red zone and the Warriors settled for three points on a Paul Ortiz field goal.
UNK ran just two plays once again on its third possession, but this time resulted in a forced fumble recovered by Evans. The Warriors then showcased their quick-striking ability with a 23-yard touchdown run by Miguel Benjamin.
The Lopers kept their foot on the gas and struck again to close the action-packed first quarter with a 22-9 advantage.
Winona State opened the second quarter by picking up a pair of critical third downs and once again cut into its deficit with a 51-yard pitch and catch from Owen Burke to Sawyer Maly. Ortiz closed the frame with another field goal to keep the Lopers within striking distance after UNK found the endzone two more times in the quarter for a 17-point halftime lead.
After yielding 36 points in the first half, the Warrior defense answered in a big way after the break by blanking the Lopers in the third quarter. Winona State put the lone puts of the frame on the board with a 33-yard touchdown catch by Tyler Knutson.
UNK would dash the Warriors’ hopes of a comeback in the fourth quarter with bookend scoring drives – both covering over 75 yards.
Burke, who hadn’t played under center since week 10, showed little signs of rust, throwing for 284 yards and three touchdowns in the setback. Maly hauled in a pair of catches for 89 yards and a score while Jake Balliu recorded a team-high five catches for 68 yards.
Clay Schueffner led the defense with 10 tackles, capping a big year that saw the redshirt freshman recorded a team-best 76 tackles.
Winona State closes the 2019 campaign with a record of 8-4 after reaching the postseason for the 11th time in team history and 10th under head coach Todd Sawyer.