Mankato West and their quick-strike offense has been putting up some pretty impressive numbers this season, scoring at least 42 points in all but one of their games. Imagine then, how strange it had to feel for the Scarlets to be in a defensive struggle, being held to just 14 points by the South St. Paul Packers at the half.
Three and a half minutes in the third quarter changed all that.
Quarterback Phil Nelson bounced back from two first-half interceptions to find Hunter Friesen for two touchdowns in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a comfortable 35-14 Class 4A state quarterfinal victory for the Scarlets.
South St. Paul, who won the Section 2AAAA championship last week with an improbable 32-31 comeback victory over St. Thomas Academy in overtime, frustrated Nelson and the Mankato West offense the entire first half. While the Scarlets were rolling up yardage- 242 yards in the first half- they weren’t able to translate all those yards into a bunch of points. South St. Paul trailed 14-7 at the half, but with their power running game the Packers seemed to be primed to wear down the Scarlets and pull off their second straight upset.
The Packer defense forced a Mankato West punt with 5:30 to go in the third quarter, another frustrating Scarlet drive that featured a lot of yardage, a holding call that negated a touchdown and a personal foul penalty that moved the top-ranked Scarlets out of field goal range. The punt, however, turned out to be the play that ignited the explosive West offense, as West recovered a South St. Paul fumble on the punt to get the ball back for their offense at the Packer 11 yard line.
That was all Phil Nelson needed. He found Friesen on a 12 yard touchdown strike to make the score 21-7, and after the Scarlet defense forced South St. Paul to go three plays and out, Nelson drove the Scarlets 62 yards down the field for another score. Friesen, who led West with 8 catches for 134 yards, hauled in his second touchdown pass, a short pass that Friesen turned into a 15-yard score to push West’s lead to 28-7.
There was no comeback in the cards for South St. Paul tonight. Leading rusher Sam Sura, who injured his left ankle against St. Thomas Academy, re-injured the ankle as the Packers were driving on their first possession of the second half. Sura didn’t return to the game, putting additional pressure on quarterback Harrison Rund to lead the Packers down the field. Rund threw three interceptions on the game, including a fourth-quarter pick that stopped a long Packer drive when they were trying to answer the 14-point barrage West posted in the third. That interception with 8:51 left in the game essentially clinched the game for Mankato West, and when Tyler Resner rambled 29 yards for a score to put West up 35-7, it was time for the Scarlets’ students to chant about going to the Dome for the semifinals.
Nelson ended the game 15-for-24 through the air for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 144 yards on the ground, including two rushing touchdowns in the first half. Rund led the Packers on the ground, carrying it 15 times for 93 yards; before the injury, Sura carried the ball 17 times for 82 yards. Overall, Mankato West piled up 445 yards of offense, 225 on the ground and 220 through the air; South St. Paul rushed for 276 yards and passed for 60, giving them 336 yards of offense for the game.
Mankato West advances to the Class 4A semifinals next Saturday at the Metrodome, where they’ll take on third-ranked Bemidji. Both teams enter the game with 11-0 records; the game is scheduled to kick off at 12:45pm.