BEMIDJI – It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say it’s “Now or never” for the Bemidji State football team. But for the Beavers’ talented senior class, it’s their last shot at winning a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title. Their last shot at making the playoffs. Their last shot at a national title.
“Oh yeah,” said senior wide receiver Justin Lee. “It’s about time to capitalize on the dream we’ve all had since we’ve been here. We’ve been close a bunch of times but we have the talent to do it now.”
The Beavers begin pursuit of their first-ever NCAA Division II playoff appearance against Upper Iowa at 6 p.m. today at Chet Anderson Stadium.
The Peacocks might not have the big-name cache of Minnesota-Duluth or St. Cloud State, but the Beavers are well aware that winning every game counts in this league – especially after what happened last season.
BSU started out 6-1, but a pair of back-to-back losses late in the season – including a painful 14-0 shutout at Northern State – all but eliminated Bemidji State from playoff contention. Even a bounce-back win against No. 6 St. Cloud State the next week couldn’t vault the Beavers back into playoff contention, and they finished 8-3.
A win against Upper Iowa in Week One won’t win the conference title by itself. But nobody’s going to be overlooking the Peacocks.
“Upper Iowa is one of those teams that’s really good and people overlook them,” BSU defensive tackle Matt Shaver said. “They put up a lot of yards against a lot of good teams last year, and they’re returning mostly everybody. They’re a team people look past sometimes, and we shouldn’t because it’s going to be a really hard game.”
Upper Iowa finished in the top half of the league in passing, rushing and total offense but struggled to score and couldn’t stop teams on defense, which led to a disastrous 3-8 overall record.
Case in point: The Beavers beat the Peacocks 48-7 in Fayette, Iowa, last year.
BSU defensive coordinator Rich Jahner doesn’t think the Peacocks will be a cakewalk this time.
“Last year everything went right for us,” he said. “We destroyed them, but that was because everything came together for us in that game. I don’t think it’s going to happen this year. I think it’s going to be a complete four-quarter battle.”
The Beavers, while returning plenty of experience at the skill positions on offense and up front on defense, had some big question marks at safety and offensive line coming into the season.
“My biggest concern is, how is an inexperienced group going to perform live when it counts without coaches on the field?” Jahner said. “It’s all on them. We’re pushing the birds out of the nest and hope they flutter enough to stay off the ground.”
BSU’s vaunted “Gang Green” defense was the No. 3 scoring defense in the country last season and the top in the conference as far as points per game.
However, the Beavers graduated all three of their main safeties. The four that figure to get the most playing time there this year – Scott Christensen, Jordan Abaroa, Luke Gerding and Colton Blascyk – haven’t played much.
Abaroa, a transfer from Scottsdale, Ariz., Community College, is confident that the Beavers can dominate any offense if they play as a unit.
“With what we’ve got out here, the type of players we have like Cory Crosby (BSU linebacker), Bucky Wright (BSU linebacker), Matt Shaver (defensive end),” he said. “We have great guys on the field that can make plays anywhere.
“I feel like if we play together, we’ll win. There’s nothing that can stop us offensively if we play together as a unit.”
Offensively, BSU is in a similar predicament. The Beavers return virtually all of their top skill position players, including All-American tight end Brian Leonhardt, second-year senior cornerback Lance Rongstad and four-year starting running back Dustin Kroeplin.
Rongstad ranked seventh in the NSIC in total offense with 190.5 yards per game and 10th in rushing yards with 75.9 yards per game.
He also threw for 1,286 yards and had eight touchdowns through the air. With Leonhardt leading the way, the Beavers will have plenty of other aerial options too, with seniors Lee, Christian Metz and Matt Gandrud returning to the fold.
But the offensive line has been completely reshuffled, with three starters returning – but in different positions – and two younger players who didn’t start last year.
How the offensive line performs over the course of the year will be key BSU repeating a rushing performance that was top-notch last year. The Beavers finished tops in the NSIC and 10th in the nation in rushing offense.
Senior Brett DeLange started all 11 games at left guard last season but will be moving to center this year. Junior Jordan Oien likewise moves from right tackle to right guard. Senior Alonzo Melton, injured for much of last season, moves from right tackle to left tackle. Right tackle Dylan Paterson and left guard Tyler Abrahamson are new at their positions too but didn’t see much playing time last season.
“We’ve improved a lot since camp,” DeLange said. “We’ve got lots of new guys.
“Most likely we’ll have some issues the first game, but we’ll work the kinks out.”
Tonight, the Beavers will have to deal with a Peacock squad that returns eight of its top 10 tacklers on defense, including first-team All-American Tony Leggart at linebacker. Upper Iowa also returns 2011 NSIC Offensive Player and Newcomer of the Year Chris Smith, quarterback Cole Jaeschke and sophomore wideout Shay Gutman.
“Their main strength is that they have a lot of good skill kids back,” BSU head coach Jefff Tesch said. “Offensively and defensively they make big plays. We’re going to try and keep them from doing it. We’ve got to get time of possession in our favor and not let them get many opportunities.”