FOOTBALL: Bemidji State hopes to prove doubters wrong at Winona
BEMIDJI -- After a month of competition, the Bemidji State football team finally has a quarterback in Alex Hass.
The Beavers, who finished 7-4 last season and won a share of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference North Division title, also have two new linemen, four new wide receivers and a new tight end.
If it wasn't evident: Bemidji State's offense will have to get used to the college game quick if it wants to pull off an upset in their season opener at Winona State tonight.
The Beavers face the Warriors at 6 p.m. today at Verizon Wireless Stadium in Winona -- the season and NSIC opener for both teams.
And with BSU's young, inexperienced offense, it's going to be up to the Beavers' defense to set the tone and keep some of the pressure off.
"We have to rely on our defense this week," BSU head coach Jeff Tesch said. "We've gotta not turn the ball over. We think we have a very strong kicking game with Zach Pulkinen coming in. We're not going to ask the offense to do a whole lot... it may be one of our shorter game plans we've had.
"Not because we don't believe in them or that they don't have talent, but we just have to play basic sound football."
Luckily for Tesch, the Beavers' defense is as cohesive a unit as it's ever been.
"We do have a lot of guys back on defense," senior linebacker Buckley Wright said. "I'm excited to see what our defense can do, we should be able to keep us in games."
Despite losing nose tackle Bryan Syrstad from the defensive line the three projected starters -- including Matt Shaver, a senior, and juniors Dan Kiebler and J.J Reinke -- saw significant playing time last season.
Winona State's deep offensive line includes four returners -- one of whom (center Richard Lilla) was an All-American last season and two more (tackle James Poliquin and guard Vance Ross) who got honorable mention nods.
Tesch thinks the game could hinge on the battle between the two lines.
"I hope our experienced line and defense can neutralize their offense a little bit," Tesch said. "Maybe we can get some three and outs, get some turnovers, maybe we can get some good field position. How our line does against their experienced O-Line and vice-versa. We have to get a draw on that."
The Warriors did lose a huge part of their offensive gameplan from 2012 in running back Rayon Simmons. Simmons, WSU's other All-American, shattered both WSU and NSIC record books with 1,774 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.
But they do have quarterback John Teigland returning, as well as receiver Josh Miles, who led the NSIC in yards-per-reception.
"It's going to be a tough matchup for us," Wright said of the Warriors offense. "Their o-line is very solid. They return their quarterback, who's a great player. They lost their star running back but it looks like their backups are all very good too.
"It'll be a challenge for sure, they're a great team."
If the BSU defense can do that, it will give the offense a shot to be deliberate and play to its one known strength: running the ball.
Tailbacks Avery Walker and Tony Peterson and fullback Brent Kondziolka can pick up some yardage -- if the Beavers hold onto the ball.
"We're just hoping to get a good first drive going, almost take the air out of the crowd and kind of nullify the whole situation," Kondziolka said. "Hopefully as soon as Alex gets his feet wet after a couple of drives it will just be boom, boom, boom."
In addition to Hass, the entire BSU receiving corps will be getting their feet wet: seniors AJ Washington and Mike Grayson and redshirt freshmen Dexter Taylor, Josh Malone, Vince Dinkel and Matthew Summers have a combined one collegiate catch between them.
Sophomore tight end Jordan Noskowiak caught one pass last season while projected starter Jared Roelofs wasn't even playing the position -- he was a linebacker.
No doubt, this offensive group won't have it easy in Winona.
"We have to earn it back there," Tesch said. "You're not going to get a lot of breaks or calls. You're not going to rattle an experienced team like that either. We have a ton of eager beavers that are ready to go, so hopefully that will offset some guys they have."
"We know Winona's a really good team and they know that as well," Kondziolka added. "But if we play mistake-free football we should have a shot to win the game."