Walking back to the locker room Saturday afternoon, Bemidji State defensive coordinator Rich Jahner expressed hopes the Beavers can continue to fly under the radar in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
That might be a little tougher now.
Bemidji State scored a stunning victory Saturday afternoon by defeating No. 20 Winona State 24-19 in the Shrine Game at Chet Anderson Stadium.
The conference may react with surprise to see the young Beavers take down a nationally ranked team. But the victory was no surprise for BSU. It was satisfaction of lessons learned, a committed week of practice and watching the two come together in a win.
Last week Bemidji State challenged then No. 10 Minnesota State University, Mankato, but gave away a 10-point lead in the final six minutes and lost 37-34 in overtime.
"The goal was to learn from last week and make sure that loss meant something to us," Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch said. "This time we just didn't give up the big plays at the end of the game ... We made more plays at the end and what we wanted to learn from last week was how to close out a game. We knew that wasn't going to be the only close game we played in."
Like the game against Mankato, Saturday's contest against Winona State went right down to the wire.
On a do-or-die fourth down play with just under two minutes remaining, Winona State wide receiver Drew Alexander caught a deflected pass from quarterback Greg Preston for a 21-yard touchdown reception.
But BSU was saved when the Warriors were flagged for an ineligible player downfield.
"It was such an intense moment," Bemidji State linebacker George Perack-Dennet said. "I fell down to the ground. Then I started hearing cheers and I looked up and I saw the defense celebrating and our fans cheering."
The penalty forced Winona State to replay the down with a five-yard penalty. Preston's pass into the end zone fell incomplete and the Warriors turned the ball over on downs.
Winona State did not have the timeouts to stop the clock and Bemidji State secured the second victory in school history over a nationally ranked opponent.
The last victory? A 28-7 victory over then No. 18 Winona State at Chet Anderson Stadium during the Beavers' 2006 NSIC championship season.
Bemidji State improved to 2-1 (1-1 NSIC) and will stay at home next Saturday to face Minnesota State, Moorhead at 1 p.m. in the Battle for the Axe.
Winona State (2-1, 1-1 NSIC) travels to Concordia-St. Paul next Saturday.
Bemidji State changed its offensive approach this week and attacked Winona State with a two-quarterback system.
The Beavers methodically switched between junior starter Derek Edholm and freshman backup Lance Rongstad throughout the game to keep the Warrior defense guessing.
It allowed Bemidji State to control the ball and the Beavers ended the game with 36:06 of possession time compared to 23:54 for Winona State.
The strategy allowed Edholm to stay fresh throughout the second half. He was knocked out of last week's game in the third quarter with a concussion.
"Having Lance out there helped me because I didn't feel so beat up out there toward the end of the game," said Edholm, who finished 12-for-19 passing for 108 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
He also rushed for 13 yards and one touchdown.
Bemidji State's offense used speed to wear out the Warrior defense in short gains through options, screens, quick passes, misdirection and the occasional draw play up the middle.
When Rongstad was brought in, he excelled. The freshman from Wisconsin attempted only four passes, but rushed 11 times for 71 yards to lead the Beavers running game Saturday.
Rongstad also appeared in some receiver sets and nearly pulled down a 43-yard pass from Edholm on the final play of the first half.
"This (system) is something that has not as much to do with Derek as we can't afford for Lance to not be out on the field," Tesch said. "Sure, Derek being a second-team all NSIC quarterback is probably not as thrilled about the idea. But we can't have him running the ball 22 times a game and expect him to survive the entire season. We've got to mix it up and bottom line is that both of the guys are willing to do what it takes to win."
Bemidji State opened the game on a 17-play drive that chewed up almost nine minutes, but it stalled on the Winona State 15-yard line and the Beavers settled for a 31-yard field goal from Jesse Sundby to take an early 3-0 lead.
Winona State answered in four plays when Drew Alexander reeled in an errant pass on a one-handed catch for a 26-yard touchdown reception. It gave the Warriors a 7-3 lead with 4:05 left in the first quarter.
The game then turned into a defensive battle as the clouds broke to hot and humid weather, foreshadowing the defensive fight to come in the second half for both teams.
Bemidji State regained the lead in the waning minutes of the half when running back Dustin Kropelin scored on a 1-yard touchdown run off the option on fourth down. It was the freshman's third touchdown of the season and the score capped off a 14-play, eight minute drive.
Kropelin finished the game with 55 yards on 15 carries.
Winona State's offense showed its skill on the following possession and exposed the Bemidji State passing defense again when Derrick Engel caught a 25-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left in the second quarter.
The score put Winona State up 13-10, a lead it carried into halftime.
The second half did not start well for Bemidji State.
Like the first half, Winona State's offense had its way with the Bemidji State defense and pushed down to Bemidji State's 2-yard line to open the third quarter.
That's when Bemidji State's defense awoke and stopped Winona State on three plays for a loss of yards.
"When they started driving down the field on us and we got back to our goal line, I said to myself 'this is not happening again, not now, not again,'" Bemidji State defensive end Rob Wills said. "We got together as a defense, dug our feet in to the ground, got low and started making plays. We all stayed on our assignments and that's how we got the job done."
Even better for the Beavers, Cullen Fahey's 32-yard field goal fluttered wide right.
"That was definitely the turning point of the game right there," Bemidji State wide receiver Andrew Schultz said. "When the defense got that stop and they missed that field goal, you could feel things turning around."
Bemidji State scored on the following possession when Edholm capped another time consuming drive on a nine-yard touchdown run. It put Bemidji State ahead 17-13 with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
Bemidji State's defense came back out and got a needed stop, forcing the Warriors off the field in four plays when Cory Crosby blocked a punt to give the Beavers excellent field position.
Schultz would score the final and decisive touchdown for Bemidji State with a little bit of luck.
On a blown up screen play, Schultz caught a deflected pass by a Winona State lineman and scored on the 10-yard reception.
The score gave Bemidji State a 24-13 lead with 12:56 to play.
It set up a familiar situation: Bemidji State held a 10-point lead against Mankato at the same point in the game last week.
Bemidji State's defense played tougher this time, but Winona State showed why it is the No. 20 ranked team in the country.
On fourth and two, Winona State challenged the Bemidji State pass defense and came away with a 41-yard deep pass reception by Derrick Engel that moved the Warriors offense to the BSU 5-yard line.
"It was a gutsy call and it was one of those gutsy calls that can make you look like a genius or make you look like an idiot," said Tesch, also noting his concern for the passing defense.
That play set up Rayon Simmons' 1-yard touchdown plunge with 5:39 left to play and the score cut Bemidji State's lead to 24-19.
The Beavers could not get the first downs to run down the clock and with 4:21 left in the game, the Warriors took over at midfield to set up the dramatic final minutes of the game.
"We knew what would happen if we ran out of gas at the end and we were not going to let it happen two games in a row," Wills said.
Saturday's win may have earned attention around the conference, but the Beavers - despite only two seasons removed from an NSIC championship - know the season is long and much work is left to be done.
"I don't think any team respects BSU football even when we had that close game against Mankato," Wills said. "I don't think Winona respected us. We're going to earn respect by winning and by playing football the way we play ... if we come out every game and play with the drive and focus that we prepared for all week for this game, we're going to be a tough team to beat."