When looking back at the last three months, it truly was an up and down season for the SMSU football team. But for the first time since 1999, the Mustangs have endured more ups than downs.
Following last Saturday's 22-8 victory over Minnesota State University-Moorhead, SMSU finished with a 6-5 overall record, its first winning season in nine years.
"Where we started five years ago, compared to where we are now, to finish with a winning season, is really a big deal," said SMSU assistant head coach Tim Steinbach. "It took some recruiting and getting the right kids in place."
SMSU head coach Eric Eidsness had to attend to a family emergency, so could not be contacted.
The Mustangs battled with the .500 mark throughout the season, but in the end, the Mustangs were able to muster up its first, and only, two-game winning streak of the season to finish with a winning season.
"We talked about it being one play at a time," Steinbach said. "You can't win two games on one play. You just have to take care of that play, if the outcome is what you want, great, and if its not, you have to move on to the next play. That was the approach we took and it paid off in the end."
Throughout the season, the Mustangs built up one of the top-ranked pass offenses in the nation, ranking as high as 11th, but in the season finale, SMSU proved its versatility when running back Zach Wysong rushed for a career-high 225 yards on a school-record 46 rushing attempts on a cold and windy day in Moorhead.
"When you get to the end of the year, in a game where the conditions were so poor, it really comes down to who is going to run the ball and who is going to stop the run," said Steinbach. "Its nice to have a great quarterback but at some point, when the conditions are that bad, you have got to have a guy you can give the ball to."
Following his record-breaking performance, Wysong also became only the fourth running back in SMSU history to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark rushing, finishing the season with 1,016 yards. The season total also gave the junior back the second highest total in school history.
"He was kind of the unsung hero of the offense," said Steinbach. "The nice thing with Zach is that he is so versatile. He was as much as a threat out of the backfield as he was running the ball."
The records didn't stop with Wysong as quarterback Josh Shudlick threw for two touchdowns, matching the NSIC record of 30 touchdowns in conference play.
"I think I've developed quite a bit mentally and understanding the game and recognizing the looks," Shudlick said. "In that aspect I think I improved quite a bit and that was probably one of the reasons for my success."
Shudlick also threw for 122 yards, giving him 3,149 yards on the season and 3,082 yards in conference play, marking the first ever quarterback to pass 3,000 yards in NSIC competition throughout the season.
"It was nice to see his development," Steinbach said. "He was always very, very good, but you knew he had greatness within him and it finally came out this year and we're glad it did."
Shudlick threw his last pass as a Mustang, and in his four years with SMSU, has set records for pass attempts (1,310) and pass completions (769). Shudlick's senior season success came with the help of wide receivers Blake Wilson and Derek Townsend, who combined for 98 catches, 1,250 yards and 18 touchdowns. Shudlick spread the ball around to seven receivers on a consistent basis, one of which being Wysong, who led the team with 64 receptions.
"I had a great system and a great staff around me" Shudlick said. "It was nice to see that kind of production."
The Mustangs proved throughout the season to be a 'never give up' type of team as they had to fight down to the wire in almost every win.
"The one thing we learned about our guys early on is that they were the kind that never panicked and never got down," Steinbach said. "They always felt like they could win games."
SMSU pulled out four if its six victories after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter. In the Mustangs final home game of the season, after jumping out to an early 28-0 lead in the second quarter, Northern State University battled back to take a 32-31 lead with just over seven minutes remaining.
After a sputtered SMSU offensive drive that led to a turnover in downs, the Mustang defense stepped up to force a three-and-out, giving the offense the SMSU offense the ball with just 2:09 remaining. On just the fourth play of the drive, a battered Shudlick completed a pass to Townsend that went for 60 yards and the touchdown, putting the Mustangs on top to earn the victory 39-32.
The Mustangs showed stints of excellence on all three phases of the game throughout the season. The offense averaged 29.4 points per game while the defense forced 25 turnovers on the season. SMSU kicker Scott Talcott was named to the NSIC All-Conference second team after connecting on seven of his 14 attempted field goals and 38 of his 39 attempted extra points. The Mustang special teams also blocked seven kicks on the season, one of which went for a touchdown.
"We've always been a good special teams unit," Steinbach said. "You can't win those close games without having a quality special teams unit."
With this season's success, comes the desire to improve come next season. SMSU will lose 13 seniors to graduation but with the emergence of the younger talents, the future looks optimistic for the Mustang hopeful.
"We have to set the tone that 6-5 isn't good enough now," said Steinbach. "We needed to get it, but now if we are 6-5 next year, we're not going to be as happy as we were this year because we've got a lot of quality kids back."
"It's great to see that we have some stability and some success now," Shudlick said. "I think they'll be able to take that forward into the future. I know a lot of the guys are going to be successful because with their character, it's hard for them not to be successful."