Minnesota State-Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner laughed when asked if last week’s season opener was an early-season “wake-up call” for the Mavericks.

“Why don’t we do this?” Hoffner said. “Let’s talk after Saturday’s game and I’ll be able to tell you exactly how everything unfolded since the opener, but right now, we’ve got a lot of question marks. I don’t think that’s any secret, but you’re only good at your next snap, and hopefully our guys are starving to take one.”

Those snaps will come when No. 20 Minnesota Duluth takes on No. 3 Minnesota State at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Malosky Stadium in the Bulldogs’ home opener.

Keep in mind the Mavericks didn’t lose their opener. No, they won it, but it didn’t come easy as NSIC upstart Northern State gave them all they wanted before falling 40-34 in overtime at Blakeslee Stadium in Mankato.

“It’s the reality of who we are right now,” Hoffner said. “We need to play a lot better if we think we’re going to win a football game this weekend. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

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Minnesota State had to score 17 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime against Northern State, with quarterback J.D. Ekowa scoring from 2 yards out with 38 seconds remaining to knot it 34-34.

After Northern State failed on a 61-yard field goal attempt on its first drive of overtime, Ekowa scored from 16 yards out to win it.

The consensus among coaches is that Northern State has an improved football team, and the Wolves had the Mavericks schemed well. That no doubt included some insight from Northern State graduate assistant Ryan Schlichte, who was a three-year starting quarterback at Minnesota State.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. Northern State came in here with one thought and one thought only, and that was to win,” Hoffner said. “You hit the nail on the head. They were primed, geared and ready. There were no secrets on that field, let me tell you that. They knew the ins and outs of Minnesota State Mavericks football, which I don’t think hurt them.”

UMD, meanwhile, opened with a 41-14 victory at Upper Iowa. While the Bulldogs would like to clean up some penalties and miscues, considering they hadn’t played in two years, it was an impressive performance.

Senior quarterback John Larson tied Ted Schlafke’s single-game record with six touchdown passes while Larson’s 447 passing yards were just 10 short of Schlafke’s program mark.

“There’s no question that Duluth is a traditionally strong program, with a lot of history and winning championships and all that fun stuff,” Hoffner said. “And I think this is one of the better teams I’ve seen in recent times, that’s for sure. I’m definitely impressed.

“And of course, John Larson is somebody who definitely (he laughed) raises your eyebrows and opens your eyes quite wide when it comes to his ability to play at a high level.”

All that praise and coachspeak is nice but you don’t have to remind Larson that the Mavericks have had the upper hand on the Bulldogs in recent years.

Minnesota State has won five straight in the rivalry and the last one was the most humbling, a 52-7 dismantling Oct. 5, 2019, in Mankato, the most lopsided loss for a proud Bulldogs program in two decades.

Larson was knocked out of that game in the second quarter with a dislocated shoulder. That caused him to miss four games as the ’Dogs struggled, missing the NCAA Division II playoffs with an 8-3 mark, while Minnesota State went 14-1 and finished as national runner-up.

“We got beat bad, and I got beat up,” Larson said. “It was a long weekend.

“I don’t think about (payback). Sometimes you get beat. They were the better team and went on to the national championship game, so props to them. This is a new year, and just like every week, you focus on that week, because last week doesn’t matter. We got to come out Saturday ready to play, because I guarantee they’ll be ready to play. It’s a huge rivalry.”

Hoffner agreed.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We expect Duluth’s best, and hopefully we’re in position to do our best.”

For the Mavericks, playing their best will need to include better pass defense after Northern State quarterback Hunter Trautman torched them for 331 yards through the air, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

While UMD returned nine of 15 seniors from last year who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season, Minnesota State didn’t do quite as well in that regard, with seven of 18 coming back.

Those factors made for a lot of unknowns coming into this season, with teams now scrambling to adjust on the fly.

“There’s a lot of new faces in a lot of new places, but the expectations don’t change,” Hoffner said. “We’re not making any excuses.”

The bottom line: The Mavericks just have to play better.

“A lot better,” Hoffner said, laughing one more time.

MINNESOTA STATE-MANKATO AT MINNESOTA DULUTH

National rankings: Minnesota State-Mankato is ranked No. 3 in both the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II and d2football.com national polls; UMD is No. 20 in the AFCA poll but not ranked by d2football.com.

Series: UMD holds a 20-18-1 series lead against the Mavericks but have dropped five straight, including a 52-7 setback at Mankato in 2019. Minnesota State had 573 yards of offense in that game while holding the Bulldogs to 256.

Coaches: Curt Wiese in 72-15 in his eighth season at UMD; Todd Hoffner is 107-22 in his 11th season for the Mavericks. That includes three straight seasons of only losing one game, with the 2019 team finishing as national runner-up.

Outlook: Senior quarterback J.D. Ekowa scored a touchdown in the final seconds of regulation and another in overtime as host Minnesota State downed Northern State 40-34 last week in their season opener. Ekowa didn’t have a great day passing, going 7 of 21 for 139 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Fellow quarterback Hayden Ekern, a redshirt freshman, was 8-for-11 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown, while sophomore Kaleb Sleezer, a 5-foot-10, 200-pounder, led the rushing attack with 18 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown. “They’re fast and big,” UMD quarterback John Larson said. “They’ve got all the pieces, for sure, but that’s no surprise to anyone who follows UMD football knowing Mankato is good. It’s going to be a fun game.”

Larson had plenty of fun last week in earning NSIC offensive player of the week honors after tying a UMD record with six TD passes while adding a career-high 447 passing yards in the Bulldogs’ 41-14 victory at Upper Iowa. Senior wide receiver Armani Carmickle also had a career day, hauling in five passes for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We had opportunities and we executed them,” Larson said. Larson, who was also the NSIC’s first “spotlight” athlete of the season this week, was asked if he realized the numbers he was putting up. “I knew I threw a few (TD passes), but I didn’t remember all of them because I always just try to focus on the next play,” he said. “It’s always fun to be part of a game like that. When you’ve got weapons like we do — there’s six guys I can name here who can go get the ball — it makes it fun to be a quarterback. I couldn’t really ask for a better way to start the season. It was a good team win.”

— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune