Winona State seniors go out in style

Photo by Chops Hancock


Winona State’s defense kept Mankato quarterback Hayden Ekern under pressure.

A great game to celebrate an even greater career saw Tom Sawyer go out a winner, as Winona State University (WSU) defeated Minnesota State University – Mankato (MSU), 18-16 in front of over 2,000 fans at Altra Federal Credit Union Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 13. 

Sawyer earned his 197th win in a game in which both teams only tallied one touchdown on offense but showcased significant defensive firepower and timely special teams play, particularly by the Warriors.

Fans were offered foreshadowing of the way the game would go when Minnesota State took the opening drive of the contest to the Warrior 10 yard line, only to be turned back by Winona State and settle for a field goal. The WSU stop in the opening moments of the contest was emblematic of a day that eventually would be won on defense.

Carter Duxbury had one of the most important plays of the game in a first quarter sack in the end-zone, shedding two blockers to force a fumble that turned into a safety for WSU. In a game eventually won by a two-point margin, Duxbury's determination made the difference on the day. Riding shotgun for Duxbury was fellow linebacker Clay Schueffner who racked up an eye-popping 14 tackles, including 10 in the first half.  

The uncommon 3-2 score on the scoreboard towards the end of the first quarter was changed to 5-3 in the Warriors favor when WSU placekicker Jacob Scott connected on a 20-yard field goal of his own. The two teams traded touchdowns to end the first 15 minutes and was the last time either team would be in the end zone the rest of the game. 

Quarterback Owen Burke expertly managed the game for Winona State, going 16-for-23 and 186 yards. His shovel-pass touchdown toss to Jaylen Schleicher was his 19th touchdown this season and 61st of his Warrior career, earning his a tie with Bruce Carpenter for third most all time. Burke leaves Maxwell Field as one of the best Winona State signal callers ever in an impressive Warrior career. 

One of Burke's favorite targets, Jake Balliu, led his team five catches for 55 yards, including a 27-yard effort. Darryl Williams also had five catches for Winona State including three grabs that moved the chains on key drives. On the ground, the Warriors welcomed back Javian Roebuck to the lineup and he closed out his WSU career with a team-best 70 yards on 14 carries. Noah Carlson added 47 yards on 10 rushes, including a 17-yard run. The balanced offense called by associate head coach Cameron Keller kept the MSU defense guessing as evidenced by the fact that the Mavericks tallied only one sack, their lowest total of 2021.

On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator Brian Curtin dialed up a defense that corralled the Mavericks in all parts of the field. 

Winona State held MSU-Mankato to just 129 passing yards, and successfully dealt with a two-quarterback rotation system posed not yet seen this year. A big part of that success was due to the punishing pursuit by Schueffner and Duxbury who made the pocket unbearable for Maverick signal callers. On the occasions Minnesota State’s quarterback solved the pressure, defensive back Aarion Lacy was more than equal to the task, racking up seven tackles, six solos, with several impressive stops in the open field.

Mitch Snitker also had five tackles from his role in the secondary, but perhaps his most important play was a blocked field goal in the third quarter with Winona State hanging on to a slim lead. If successful, the kick would have put MSU up at a key point in the game; instead Snitker stuffed the Maverick's kicker, Damian Chowaniec who had been perfect on field goals for the season up to that point. Although Minnesota State - Mankato would score one more time with a field goal in the third quarter, the Warrior kicking unit would answer through a field goal of their own. Winona State's placekicker Jacob Scott connected from 31-yards in what would be the difference in the game, the second of the half and his season-best third of the contest. 

In the fourth quarter, Winona State struck again for three points in the final frame, when Jake Scott connected on a 30-yard field goal, to put WSU up 18-16. For Scott, his three-for-three day was a season best and for his team, a much-needed offensive lift inside the red zone.

Chasing the game late in the fourth quarter, MSU - Mankato elected to punt with 4:30 minutes left to go and down two points. Initially, the play looked to be the right call, with Winona State pinned inside their own five-yard line. However, with a third and five in the shadow of their own goal posts facing WSU, Noah Carlson took a Burke handoff and broke to the outside for a 15 yard gain. The carry was key, extending the Warrior drive and providing a fresh set of downs. A series of subsequent Burke handoffs to Roebuck and Carlson had the dual effect of running time off the scoreboard and carved out enough space for Winona State's Tristan Root to eventually punt with under a minute to play.   

Root’s boot set the Mavericks back to their own 26 and compelled the WSU fan base to rise and rouse their team. Minnesota State were able to eke out four plays from scrimmage in the final nail-biting moments, but all Maverick hope was lost when Carter Duxbury — again — sacked MSU quarterback Hayden Ekern, this time ending the game and starting the Sawyer celebration. 

In the storied rivalry that is Winona State – Minnesota State, a win for Tom Sawyer in a well-played game was the perfect ending to the season. Fans, families and followers from both teams lingered on Maxwell Field for over an hour, capturing memories, posing for photos and celebrating the season. The Warriors concluded 2021 with a 7-4 overall record and a 4-2 NSIC South mark. 

For Tom Sawyer, it was win number 197. For Winona State football, it was a great day. 

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