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Bemidji State football takes nationally ranked running game to Crookston Saturday

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The numbers don't lie.

The Bemidji State football team is one of the best in the country and running the ball and defending against the run through the first seven weeks of the season.

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The Beavers will take that grinding style of football on the road Saturday to face lowly Minnesota-Crookston at 1 p.m. in the battle for the hubcap trophy.

The Golden Eagles (1-6 overall, 0-6 NSIC) have lost five straight.

After any major win like last week's victory over ranked Wayne State, there is a potential danger of a hangover effect that could lead to a loss.

Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch said a letdown is unlikely to happen to the Beavers.

"I think our leadership has been good and I think we've been ready to play every game," Tesch said. "I really, really believe we are ready to go."

Back to the numbers.

Of the 148 teams in Division II football, the Beavers are ranked No. 14 in national rushing offense and No. 6 in actual rushing defense.

The Beavers rush on average for 212 yards per game and the defense is holding opponents to an average of 66 yards per game.

Those statistics have in part translated into a 5-2 record (4-2 NSIC) and have elevated the surprising Beavers into one of the top teams in the Northern Sun Conference this season.

"I thought we were going to be a much improved team," Tesch said. "I said that at the end of the spring and I said that at the end of the two-a-days. You can see that we're better. We're probably further along than we could have hoped which is the good news. The expectations were there and we're living up to them right now."

Bemidji State is coming off perhaps its biggest win of the season. The Beavers defeated No. 14 Wayne State 21-10 in snow and bitter cold last week at Chet Anderson Stadium.

The win moved Bemidji State into a five-way tie for third place in the NSIC standings along with Wayne State and dropped the Wildcats down to No. 24 in the latest national rankings.

The Beavers are ranked No. 10 in the regional rankings and received votes in the most recent national poll.

The Beavers can legitimately think about playoffs, but much work is needed to be done if BSU wants to sew up its first Division II playoff berth in school history.

Of the remaining four games, three are on the road.

Next week, the Beavers will take on defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the final home game of the season. The No. 9 Bulldogs have lost only one game this season and enter this week's game against St. Cloud State tied atop the NSIC standings with Minnesota State-Mankato with a 6-0 conference record.

"We want to come out and make a name for ourself and get ranked," Bemidji State safety Aaron Roland said. "If we come out this week and get what we need to do done and come out for Duluth and be strong - that's going to be a playoff game right there .... but we're not going to overlook anybody because on Saturday, anything can happen."

The final two games for BSU come on the road against Mary (4-3 overall, 4-2 NSIC) and Concordia-St. Paul (1-6 overall, 1-5 NSIC).

Up first is Crookston, a team BSU had defeated in 15 of the last 16 meetings, including a 41-27 defeat last season at Chet Anderson Stadium.

The Beavers led 21-14 at halftime before pulling away.

Bemidji State assistant coach Brent Bolte said Monday that the number in the mind of all the defensive players this week is 488: the total number of offensive yards allowed to Crookston last year.

The BSU defense will be looking for a better performance on Saturday.

"I think we're doing really good, it's just injuries are killing us," Roland said. "We need to get guys healthy so we can finish the season strong."

Not only are the Beavers fighting injuries, a handful of players have come down with the flu.

The most notable recent loss is speedy wide receiver Justin Lee, who developed into a solid slot receiver and a key blocker in Bemidji State's rushing attack.

He suffered a femur injury last week in practice and will be lost for the season.

That moves Jody Henningson up the depth chart and possibly into a more expanded role. It also may mean backup quarterback Lance Rongstad lining up at wideout on some formations.

Henningson answered the call in the last two games, scoring a touchdown against St. Cloud State and a key fourth-quarter touchdown last week that iced the game against Wayne State.

They are his only two touchdowns of the season.

"It's a good feeling knowing that we have a chance to make the playoffs, so we've got to keep playing hard every week and see what happens," Henningson said. "We're approaching (Crookston) just like we did last week ... we're just going in there to play hard and play the way we should be playing. We're feeling pretty excited about our season and the way it is going. Hopefully we can finish it strong."

estromgren@bemidjipioneer.com

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