While most college football teams like to pick a quarterback and stick with him, Minnesota State-Mankato has platooned quarterbacks the past five seasons, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Mavericks have gone 48-7 during that span while making three NCAA Division II playoff appearances, including a berth in the national semifinals last season.
Minnesota Duluth will be ready for both junior J.D. Ekowa and senior Ryan Schlichte when the No. 3 Mavericks (4-0) host the No. 12 Bulldogs (4-0) in an NSIC battle of nationally ranked unbeatens at 2 p.m. Saturday at Blakeslee Stadium.
Ekowa and Schlichte are in their third years platooning. Mavericks coach Todd Hoffner said he didn’t know yet who would start Saturday but said both would play.
“There are a lot of things that go into it, health- and competition-wise,” Hoffner said. “We look at the opponent and see who presents a good opportunity for their skill sets, but they’re both competitive and want to win.”
Teams that use two quarterbacks often do so to challenge a defense with a different look, for example, bringing in a quarterback who is more of a runner. That can make them harder to game plan for, but that’s not the case with Minnesota State.
“They’re both talented guys,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “Both can throw and both can run, and the offense doesn’t change a lot depending on who is in there. Platooning gives them an opportunity for both to get playing time. We wouldn’t prefer one or the other.”
Ekowa has been more accurate this season, completing 30 of 50 passes for 387 yards, compared to 14 of 42 for 272 yards for Schlichte. Both have thrown two touchdown passes, but the biggest statistical difference is interceptions, where Ekowa hasn’t been intercepted, but Schlichte has been picked off four times.
Ekowa, meanwhile, has run for 157 yards while Schlichte has run for 97.
“They’re kind of dual-threat quarterbacks,” Hoffner said. “They’re game managers but have the ability to make a big play. There is a different dynamic to each young man, but the way they play, I don’t think they’re that much different.”
And no matter who is under center, they have an experienced big-play target in 6-foot-5 senior Shane Zylstra.
Zylstra, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers wide receiver and punt returner Brandon Zylstra, leads the Mavericks with 17 receptions for 313 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 18.4 yards per catch.
In the backfield Minnesota State features tailback Nate Gunn, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior who has six rushing touchdowns and is averaging 147.5 yards per game on the ground this season. Gunn set Mavericks’ single-season records with 1,705 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns last season.
“It’s sad this is his last season,” Hoffner said.
Defensively, senior linebacker Zach Robertson and Jack Leius, son of former Minnesota Twins third baseman Scott Leius, are the leading tacklers for a unit that has yielded only 9.8 points and 44.8 rushing yards per game, ranking third nationally in both categories. That bodes well the Mavericks since Saturday's forecast calls for windy and potentially wet conditions.
“This is our biggest challenge of the year, and there is certainly a different level of excitement that comes with it,” Weise said. “They take care of the football, they’ve been stout against the run and they haven’t been giving up a lot of big pass plays. They make you work for everything you get.”
And Hoffner doesn’t mind having his quarterbacks work for whatever playing time they get.
Schlichte has gotten the majority of the starts but Ekowa got the starting nod last week in the Mavericks’ 20-6 home victory over Winona State.
“Some weeks it’s a bit clearer than others,” Hoffner said of choosing a starter. “Obviously, they both want to play the whole game, but they do what’s best for the team. It varies from game to game, and how much playing time can depend on how healthy they are, but I think it does make for a competitive atmosphere in practice.”
Hoffner laughed after being asked if the two quarterbacks get along.
“They have to,” he said.
NO. 12 MINNESOTA DULUTH AT NO. 3 MINNESOTA STATE-MANKATO
What: NSIC football game
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Blakeslee Stadium (7,500 capacity, natural grass)
Mankato forecast: morning showers with a high of 59 and 20 mph wind
Radio: KDKE-FM 102.5 (dukefmduluth.com)