SMSU FOOTBALL: Mustangs hold off Beavers late 28-20 in Ag Bowl victory

Photo by Sam Thiel SMSU’s Ashanti Payne crosses the goal line for a touchdown during their game against Minot State University on Saturday.

MARSHALL – It came down to the final play of the game and the last few ticks remaining on the clock, but a couple of key defensive stops and a touchdown run from the Southwest Minnesota State University football team proved to be the difference as the Mustangs defeated the Minot State University Beavers 28-20 on Saturday evening in the Ag Bowl.

With the Mustangs’ leading 28-20 with 2:48 left, Minot got the ball back looking for another deep drive down the field, but a pass from Beavers quarterback Zac Cunha was intercepted by SMSU’s Adam Elliott, giving SMSU possession with under two minutes to go.

After a Mustangs punt, the Beavers had one final opportunity to make a drive, marching all the way down to the SMSU 11-yard line with five seconds to go. But on the final play of the game, SMSU’s Lucas Fisher picked off Cunha on the goal line as time expired to cap off the Mustangs’ comeback.

Despite game-time temperatures hovering in the 50s and 60s, the game was a heated battle from start to finish, with the two teams trading back-and-forth long drives and big defensive plays.

The Mustangs marched right down the field on their first offensive possession, going all the way down to the Minot one-yard line. But the Beaver defense held its own, stuffing the Mustang offense on fourth-and-one to force a turnover on downs and give the ball back to Minot State.

After a Minot punt, the Mustangs orchestrated another drive, this time finding the end zone as Max Simmons scored on a two-yard run with 4:46 left in the first quarter to make it 7-0 SMSU.

The Beavers made a key defensive stop on the Mustangs’ next possession, as Minot’s Kiante Goudeau intercepted a Conner Wilkie pass, setting up a 25-yard touchdown from Cunha to Leroy Arnold to tie things at 7-7. Wilkie was forced to step in under center as SMSU starting quarterback Blake Gimbel left after re-injuring his shoulder from last week’s game against Minnesota State University Moorhead.

The Beavers took their first lead of the game in the second quarter, as Minot’s Lavante Bushnell hauled in a Cunha pass for the 19-yard score, putting the Beavers up 14-7 with 10:26 left in the first half.

A few minutes later, the Mustangs responded with another scoring drive of their own, this time from the legs of the running back Payne, who ran it in from six yards out to tie things back up at 14 apiece with 7:19 left in the half.

After neither team could find the end zone throughout the next few possessions, the Beavers struck once more as Larry Overstreet broke through the SMSU defense for a two-yard touchdown run to give Minot a 20-14 lead at the half after the missed extra point.

The six-point Beaver lead would remain until the early stages of the fourth quarter, when SMSU put together another drive, capped by Payne’s second score of the night, giving the Mustangs the lead back at 21-20 with 12:39 left.

SMSU added to its lead late in the fourth, driving all the way to the Beavers’ 20-yard line before Payne received the handoff from Wilkie and took it to the end zone for his third score of the night to push the Mustangs’ lead to 28-20, setting the stage for the close finish.

Mustangs coach Cory Sauter said he was pleased with his team’s ability to regroup after being down at halftime and make plays when they needed to.

“When you play any game in the Northern Sun, you play against quality people and going in at halftime being down is never easy. Ultimately I think we regrouped pretty well and guys stayed the course and didn’t panic. Minot had a chance to go up two scores and our defense shut them out in the second half. Thank god they did we needed that. Every game is different; last week was a shootout game and this one was a different deal,” Sauter said. “As I told our guys after the game, there’s no such thing as a bad win and we found a way to win, it just so happened that we were able to capitalize and create a turnover to prevent possibly going into overtime. At the end of the season, this will still count as a win even though we felt like there were areas we needed to play better. Ultimately we found a way and this should keep our guys extremely hungry to practice this next week and get ready for a road trip to Bemidji.”

Cunha led the way for the Beavers with 232 yards passing on 15 of 33 attempts with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions. Overstreet led in rushing with 69 yards and a score while Bushnell and Arnold had 52 and 54 yards and a score each, respectively, to lead the receivers. Payne led the way for the Mustangs with 154 yards and a career-high three touchdowns while Wilkie threw for 95 yards on 13 of 21 attempts and an interception. Nate Huot caught four passes for 28 yards for the receivers.

Payne said he wouldn’t be able to create plays like he did without the support of the offensive line and the coaching staff.

“I tip my hat off to ‘The Herd’. We trust in our coaches to dial up the right plays and without ‘The Herd’ we wouldn’t be able to have the holes to run through,” Payne said. “Coaches dial them up and we execute and good things happen.”

Sauter added Payne has had a long journey to get to where he’s at today and is excited to see what happens next for the senior.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get himself to where he’s at right now; he’s in peak physical condition and one of our positive leaders on our offense and our team,” Sauter said. “We are really excited to see what he brings to the table.”

The Beavers gained 367 yards of total offense compared to 421 yards for the Mustangs. SMSU outgained Minot on the ground 272-135 while the Beavers won the air battle with 232 yards compared to just 149 from SMSU.

Sauter said the defense stepped up in the second half and helped shut down the Beavers’ run game, forcing them to call plays through the air late.

“It always starts up front with our defensive line and I think these guys kind of took it personally,” Sauter said. “After giving up 20 points in the first half, those guys did a nice job of keeping Minot’s run game to a minimum in the second half, which forced them to throw a few more times and be a little more one-dimensional.”

The Mustangs will hit the road to face Bemidji State University. Sauter said their biggest takeaway will be to stop the opponent’s ground game while being able to pick up their own, especially in late-game situations.

“We have to stop the run, and I felt like when we do that, we play some of our best football. There’s no secret to that, but I felt in the second half we committed to that and made the necessary adjustments,” Sauter said. “I was really happy with us being able to run the football and the part that we need to do a better job of is when the game is on the line, such as a third-and-one, to be able to convert so that we don’t have to get in a last drive situation and have to get an interception to end the game.”