MARSHALL - Down after down, rush after rush, the frustration that had built up for the Southwest Minnesota State football team through three straight losses melted away and was replaced by unbridled confidence as the Mustangs did what they wanted, whenever they wanted against Wayne State's defense in last week's 40-24 homecoming victory at Mattke Field.
Central to the Mustangs' dominant performance against what had previously been known as a stout WSC defense was an offensive line that allowed SMSU running backs Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore to pile up 324 yards rushing.
The linemen said they knew WSC had given up only 90 yards per game on the ground and took that as a challenge. Almost right away, they learned they could run the ball against the Wildcats, and whenever they returned to the sidelines after a score, they were itching to get back on the field and punish WSC's defense some more.
"We just found a couple of runs we really liked and stuck to them, pressed them and just continued to hammer that set of runs," said Jeremy Darveau, SMSU's offensive line and running game coordinator. "We said, 'Let's ride this train until it lets us off.' And it never let us off."
The Mustangs (2-4 overall) go from playing one of the best defenses in the nation last week, to the very best defense in the nation this week when they head east to play 10th-ranked and undefeated Minnesota State-Mankato today at 2 p.m. at Blakeslee Stadium. The Mavericks are first in Division II football in total defense (202.2 yards per game), second in scoring defense (10.8 ppg) and third in rushing defense (45.3 ypg).
The past two meetings between the Mustangs and Mavs have been heavily one-sided, with MSU outscoring SMSU 91-7. But following the most complete game they've played all season, the Mustangs' O-linemen are ready to face another difficult challenge head on.
"Coach was just telling us we've never beat Mankato, so that just makes us want to work even harder," said SMSU's 6-foot-1, 317-pound center Brandon Puffer. "They're a great, just a great defense, and their D-line will be the best we'll face all year. I feel like we'll step up to that challenge, that we'll be able to move the ball on them and that our defense will play great and we'll see what happens."
Darveau said last week's win over Wayne State was the best effort he has seen from an offensive line since he came to SMSU in 2008 and thinks the front five will be prepared for what's to come against the Mavericks. He started out as a tight ends coach his first two years at SMSU and became the O-line coach in 2010. The five starters on the line are all juniors (left tackle Alex Sedrel, left guard Jake Thiel, Puffer, right guard Justin Knakmuhs and right tackle Kyle Johnson), and Davreau has been able to work with them for about as long as they've been in the program.
"This is my first group, and there are four things that I look for in an offensive line, and those are fundamentals, intensity, speed and technique, and those five guys, they had the intensity from Day 1, especially those three inside guys," Darveau said. "They've really played with a ton of intensity since they've gotten here, and as a group, those five guys jell so well together just because they've started so many games together. They've been starting going into two years now, some of those guys, and I think we're just starting to see the tip of the iceberg of what this offensive line can be."
The linemen have an average weight of 307.6 pounds. Sedrel, who replaced injured senior Jon Cox three games into the season, is the tallest at 6-5, and Puffer is the shortest at 6-1. They feel they have the physical tools to be a great line, and now they've been showing how imposing they can be with their recent play.
"We've been playing together for a long time," Knakmuhs said. "We really work well together. We've got a good amount of size on the inside and outside, so what more could you want for the line?"
A look at the numbers shows the improvement of the line. Last year SMSU averaged 131.6 rushing yards per game in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference contests, which ranked 12th out of 14 teams. This year the number has shot up to 184.3 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the NSIC. The Mustangs' pass protection has also been solid, having only surrendered three sacks in six games.
Following last week's win over the Wildcats, both of SMSU's running backs expressed their gratitude for the work the big guys have done up front. The O-linemen appreciate the praise, but are quick to share their admiration for both Moore and Matthews.
"They're phenomenal backs," Johnson said. "They're both so shifty. You got thunder and lightning back there with both of them. We know if we can give them just a little crease or get up on linebackers and open up a hole, they're gonna take off."
Johnson said he feels the line is really starting to jell and said the WSC game is "just a taste of what's to come." He said they know they haven't seen a defense as strong as Mankato's this season, but is looking forward to the test.
"They're a really great defense, you've gotta give credit to them, but we're going to take it as a challenge as well,"?he said. "We want this game, we want to go after it, so we'll see what happens on Saturday."