Bemidji State head football coach Jeff Tesch believes his team is heading into what may be the most critical stretch of the season.
It starts Saturday when Bemidji State hosts St. Cloud State Saturday at 1 p.m. in the homecoming game at Chet Anderson Stadium.
"What it really shows, this game, is if we are pretenders or contenders," Tesch said. "I think the next two weeks are really going to define the season. We're just going to go out there, try our best and see what happens."
The Beavers are sure to get their first real test since the 24-19 win over Winona State three weeks ago.
With a 4-1 record (3-1 NSIC), the Beavers have aspirations at making the Division II playoffs.
Losing to St. Cloud State 2-3 overall (2-2 NSIC) will deal a blow to those hopes.
But a win would make next week's home game against Wayne State a potential tie-breaker at the end of the season when the playoff field is deterimined.
And wins over the next two weeks would start to put the Beavers in the conversation for the Mineral Water Bowl. The 2006 NSIC champion Beavers played in the Mineral Water Bowl after being snubbed in the national selection process.
The Bemidji State players insist there is not any pressure.
"We're just trying to get mentally ready, especially with this being homecoming," Bemidji State defensive end Rob Wills said. "We're not trying to get distracted too much. Were trying not to add pressure on us. Overall, it's just a mid-season game."
Bemidji State enters the game winners of three straight, including last week's 42-20 rout of Northern State on the road. Bemidji State was up 42-7 early in the third quarter and played out reserves the rest of the game.
"First of all, it was good to win on the road," Tesch said. "We haven't won on the road in a while and that was the goal ... we played pretty darn well in all three aspects of the game ... we were just able to control the line of scrimmage and do many things both ways."
St. Cloud State appears to be peaking after a tough start. The Huskies opened the season with three straight losses to Augustana, Division I-AA Maine in overtime and Wayne State.
They are winners of two straight games after defeating Northern State 28-17 on the road and Upper Iowa 57-10 last week at home.
St. Cloud State brings in a balanced offense led by quarterback Mitch Watkins and running back Brandon Geiss.
Watkins has thrown for 1,075 yards and 10 touchdowns. Geiss has rushed for 544 yards and four touchdowns.
"The key to this game is stopping the run, definitely," Wills said. "If we can get them into predictable down distances and get a pass rush on that quarterback, it's going to be a done deal."
The Huskies defeated the Beavers 48-14 last year at Husky Stadium. St. Cloud State was an experienced team then and lost 10 of 11 starters on defense this year to graduation.
That translates well for Bemidji State's rushing attack, which is averaging 237 yards per game making it the No. 2 ranked rushing attack in the conference. BSU has rushed for 1,186 yards this season on the legs of quarterback Derek Edholm, running back Dustin Kroeplin and backup quarterback Lance Rongstad.
That number is notable. The Beavers struggled on the ground last year and rushed for 1,087 yards in 11 games.
"I don't want to brag but, but it has a lot to do with the tight ends and fullbacks, just getting an extra blocker out there so we have more man (coverage)," Bemidji State tight end Brian Leonhardt said of the running game's improvement this year.
He also credited the play of the offensive line.
"That's one place we kind of struggled with last year and with all of them returning, they're doing well too," Leonhardt said.
Bemidji State's rushing defense has been played equally well over the first five weeks of the season, averaging opponents a mere 71.4 yards per game - also ranked second in the NSIC. The Beavers have allowed just 357 yards rushing this season.
The Beavers may have lost starting fullback Nate Solors and linebacker Alex Mock for the season to injury.
Solors broke his hand in practice and a timetable for his return is uncertain. He's been valuable to the offense in blocking and receiving roles this season. His injury will likely mean more playing time for Leonhardt, who will move into the fullback position on some sets.
Mock, who stepped into a starting role when Gary Miller was lost to the season for injury, sprained a knee in the first quarter last week at Northern State. No timetable is set for his return.
Mock's injury means the Beavers are going to have to get creative on the depth chart. There is no one to back up Mock at inside linebacker.
BSU defensive coordinator Rich Jahner said Thursday it is possible North Daktota State transfer Blake Sczepanski and former Stephen-Argyle star may be converted from running back to linebacker.
"We wish we had a couple other guys that are hurt, but so does everyone else in the country right now," Tesch said. "I think we're really ready to go and put in a good game this weekend."
E BSU received three votes in the recent American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Poll.
- BSU enters the Homecoming game on a seven-game winning streak in games played at Chet Anderson Stadium. BSU has won 13 of the last 15 home games
- Rushing rank: The Beavers rank 10th in NCAA Division II football for average rushing yards allowed and gained per game.
- BSU has just three interceptions on the season, with two going for touchdowns. Wills has two of those three interceptions.