MARSHALL -- After a spring schedule that was defined by its wintry weather, the Southwest Minnesota State University football team got a taste of summer and a sneak peak at next season during its spring game on Saturday.
The temperature forced its way into the 70s as sunshine soaked the Regional Event Center, while offense and defense went back and forth on Mattke Field.
In the end, the gold-clad offense proved to be less rusty during the scrimmage, taking the game (with a modified scoring system) 98-70.
Southwest Minnesota State running back Caleb Burns, right, breaks away from linebacker Alex Burton on his way into the end zone for a touchdown in the Mustangs’ spring game Saturday at Mattke Field at the Regional Event Center.
"All in all it was a good scrimmage," SMSU head coach Cory Sauter said. "We were able to come out of it relatively healthy. We made some big plays on both sides. It was fun for us to go back and forth for awhile, it kind of got close there."
Quarterback Chris Stemen had taken every snap for the Mustangs during the spring due to an injury to Charlie Kern and looked sharp on Saturday. His extra practice during the past month should pay dividends down the line for the Mustangs.
"He's obviously taken every single snap this spring. He's been good up until about the middle of this week when his arm started to get sore on him, which is normal," Sauter said. "It'll be good for him to get his arm iced up and recovered here in these next couple weeks.
"He did a nice job all spring to be put in that situation and just running with it," Sauter added. "He has improved. It was probably a blessing for our team, getting another guy ready to play from that end. He's a guy, now, that we would feel comfortable playing in a ballgame. He's obviously got a ways to go before we get him to where we want him to be, but he's definitely taken a couple steps forward over the course of the spring."
Stemen looked especially proficient at connecting on difficult touch passes to backs out of the back field, as well as delivering the ball to receivers over the middle. Kern and Stemen will look to replace two-year starter Tyler Peschong under center in the fall.
SMSU must also replace a talented backfield duo of Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore, the leading rushers for the Mustangs in 2012.
Tyler Tonderum, a junior in 2013, had several explosive runs on the day, including a touchdown scamper of more than 20 yards to put the offense up 40 points.
A veteran defensive unit took the long run personally, however, and battled back to get within three points at 67-64. Defensive end A.J. Page wreaked havoc in the backfield, pressuring Stemen into some errant throws, while nearly intercepting a pair of passes in coverage. Sauter said Page, along with defensive tackle Jake Levtzow, has had a terrific spring camp for the Mustangs.
"Jake Levtzow, in general, this entire spring has been playing well," Sauter said. "He moves really well and he's a tough guy to block. In general, our defensive line has performed very well. We've blitzed a little bit more over the course of the spring, just trying to get guys to understand where they need to be and the importance of getting to the quarterback. Forcing the quarterback to be uncomfortable back there, any time you can do that it leads to bad throws and turnovers and that's just an area that we've got to be better at."
Following the long defensive stand, the offense took advantage of a few tackling miscues to move the ball down the field and earn their 28-point victory. Considering that the Mustangs had been unable to tackle in practice for most of the spring, a few errs were to be expected. Sauter mentioned that one of the tasks in evaluating the spring game will be to see how often the defense was able to make tackles in space and how well the team executed the play calling in its last tune-up before summer break.
"It'll be good just to go back and see how many one-on-one tackling situations we made, how many we missed and just the overall execution," Sauter said. "Did guys execute what what we are asking them to do both offensively and defensively? Offensively, were we blocking the right guys? Defensively, were we filling the right holes and getting into the right alignments? That will be fun to go back and see those things."
The Mustangs will return to campus in early August for training camp before opening the season against St. Cloud State on September 7 at Mattke Field.