The Winona State University (WSU) football team traveled to the University of Mary (UMary) and ended up on the right side of a back-and-forth affair, 48-38 to claim their third win of the 2021 season.
Winona State had the first lead and the last lead of the game, but in between, the Marauders and Warriors exchanged blows that left the outcome in doubt for fans of either team until the last seconds of the contests.
In the end, it was a key punt return by Jake Balliu with the game in balance and a next-Warrior-up mindset from Dominik London that was the catalyst for a Winona State comeback that will surely be remembered.
Javian Roebuck started the scoring for Winona State and the contest on a 10-yard run, capping a five-play, 78-yard drive that included two key catches by Balliu and Jaylen Schleicher from starting quarterback Owen Burke.
UMary answered the Warrior score with a field goal on their ensuing possession, but WSU responded with a scoring drive of their own, foreshadowing what would be a trend the rest of the game.
Winona State’s Burke-to-Ethan Wittenburg collaboration that has been strong all season delivered again, as the two connected first on a 16-yard throw and then a 41-yard strike to double the Warrior lead. As with the first touchdown, Jacob Scott drilled the point after and the Warriors were up 14-3.
The Marauders answered again, this time on a 12-yard Logan Nelson pass to teammate Luke Little, narrowing the score to 14-10 in favor of WSU after one quarter of play.
UMary took advantage of a missed Warrior field goal in the start of the second quarter to craft another scoring drive, going up 17-14, but Scott hit a 31-yard field goal to knot the game at 17 apiece on the next Warrior offensive series.
However, just before the end of the second half, UMary scored their third touchdown of the day, again with Nelson connecting a pass to Marauder wide receiver Danny Kittener for the score.
The bad news for the Warrior faithful at halftime was that Winona State was down, 24-17. The good news was that WSU has made a habit of scoring second-half points in bunches in 2021, and Saturday’s game was no exception.
In the second half, the Warrior comeback started with a Luc Leszczynski and Darius Manuel sack on first down, a big play that set the tone for WSU. The play combined with some Marauder penalties to stymie the UMary drive to start the third quarter. Corrie King also had a key play on third down, breaking up a pass intended for the Marauders David Small.
Winona State got the ball back, and five plays later, the Warriors had the scoreline level at 24-24 with a score at 8:26 in the quarter. Wittenburg managed two more grabs and London, taking most of the snaps at running back due to injuries, scored on an eight-yard run to cap the drive.
Oftentimes, football fans from around the conference take notice when Jake Balliu drops back to receive a punt for the Warriors and midway through the third quarter on Saturday, he showed why.
Balliu received a punt from UMary’s Kevin Powell after yet another Warrior defensive stop. Sixty-one yards later, Balliu was diving into the end zone to score his first return touchdown of the season and fifth of his career. Balliu’s big play is believed to be the first punt or kickoff touchdown return across the conference ranks so far this year. Just as importantly, Balliu’s touchdown put WSU out in front again, this time at 31-24.
Although UMary would tie the game again at 31-31, the fourth quarter belonged to Winona State.
UMary matched the Warriors touchdown with one of their own, as Small scored on a four-yard rush. The two team traded scores again, with WSU’s Noah Carlson scoring from three yards out, the result of a seven-play drive that covered 69 yards. Like London, Carlson was pressed into service in the backfield with injuries sidelining Roebuck and Gavin earlier in the game.
After six minutes of scoreless football, London launched the longest run of the season so far for WSU to score once more, going 78 yards and blowing by UMary defenders along the way and moving the scoreboard to 45-38 in favor of the Warriors with four minutes left in the contest.
With their fourth key stop of the quarter, the WSU defense earned the ball back for Winona State and the offense scored again, this time on a 25-yard field goal by Scott. The three points were valuable breathing room for Winona State and the seven-play time-consuming drive that supported it was key in terms of clock management at the end of the high scoring affair.
Individually, Burke was 16-of-28 for 286 yards and a touchdown. London excelled in the running back role, rushing for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Carlson had 45 yards on five carries and a touchdown. Wittenburg had 113 yards receiving, while Jaylen Schleicher had 101.
On defense, Clay Schueffner led the Warrior way with eight tackles; Ben McCabe and Mitch Snitker had seven each, and Snitker claimed an interception as well. Devon Moore and Carter Duxbury rang up five tackles, including stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Special teams were key on the day, with Balliu’s 103-yard total kick return yards coming on three efforts. Scott was 2-for-3 on field goals and a perfect 6-for-6 on point after attempts.
For Winona State the game was a key road win moving the Warriors on to 3-1 on the year. Despite several injuries — particularly in the backfield — the Warriors showed the resilience they have made a calling card this season.
Next up for the Warriors (3-1, 0-0 conference) is another road trip, this time to Wayne State College for an Oct. 2 contest at 1 p.m.
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