When the Bemidji State football team took the field last year, it was a roster dominated with fresh-faced underclassmen and a losing record reflected that inexperience.
An offseason of hard work and added experience has translated into progress for the Beavers in 2009.
That question will be answered Saturday when the Beavers take on what has been the best football team in the country over the last two years in Minnesota-Duluth at 1 p.m. at Chet Anderson Stadium.
It is a must-win game for the Beavers (6-2 overall, 5-2 NSIC), who have to win the final three games of the season to reach the Division II playoffs for the first time in school history.
"We're approaching it like it's a big game, that's the truth and we're not sugar coating it," Bemidji State defensive end Kyle McMartin said.
Minnesota-Duluth (7-1 overall, 7-0 NSIC) are the defending national champions and are currently the No. 7 ranked team in the country. The Bulldogs have not lost a conference game since moving to the Northern Sun from the defunct North Central Conference last season.
They have rolled through the conference again this fall. The Bulldogs have won six games this season by 21 points or more and have held six teams to seven points or less.
Three weeks ago UMD crushed MSU, Moorhead 76-7.
"You can't be intimidated," Bemidji State senior linebacker Jake Anderson said. "Sure, they've put up some big numbers, but we've put up some decent numbers and we have to come in thinking we're going to beat them."
When the two teams met last year at Malosky Stadium, Duluth cruised to a 48-21 victory over the Beavers as part of its undefeated season.
McMartin feels the Beavers have a better chance to compete with the Bulldogs this year because of the experience gained last year.
"Last year we were a young team and I hate using that excuse," McMartin said. "But by young I mean we weren't assignment sharp as much and this year the guys are older, faster, they know both offensive and defensive systems much better. And they've grown."
Through the first two months of this season, the identities of all the teams in the conference have been established.
Bemidji State will see its mirror image in Minnesota-Duluth.
The Beavers and the Bulldogs are the best rushing teams in the country.
The Beavers offense is built on a three-pronged attack by starting quarterback Derek Edholm, backup quarterback Lance Rongstad and freshman running back Dustin Kroeplin.
Some compare it to a wildcat-style formation the Miami Dolphins have made famous in the NFL. BSU's system is more a quarterback-swapping approach designed to keep defenses guessing.
The trio has combined for 1,538 yards and 18 touchdowns and the offense averages 220 rushing yards per game.
That gives the Beavers the No. 2 ranked rushing offense in the conference and the No. 15 ranked rushing offense in Division II football.
The top rushing team in the conference is the Bulldogs, powered by the legs of all-conference running back Isaac Odim, who has rushed for 1,258 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
"Going against him is going to be tough, he's a great player," Anderson said. "We are going to have to rally like we've never done before and get everyone to the point of attack. We've got to hold him up, we've got to go to the ball to get strips, fumbles - basically get there and make sure he doesn't get any yards after contact."
The Bulldogs are averaging 310 yards per game on the ground, which ranks No. 2 in the country.
"You could look at it that way, but another way you can look at it is that both teams are stacked up on rushing defense," Anderson said. "We're both very high in the national polls and I think it's going to be a slugfest on defense. It's just going to be who's more sound and who doesn't make mistakes and who can pound out the ball is going to win the game."
Bemidji State's defense has been aided by a ball-control offense that holds the ball on average for 34 minutes per game.
The Beavers allow a mere 70 yards per game on the ground are the No. 2 ranked rush defense in the conference and are No. 8 in the country.
The Beavers 261 average yards allowed per game ranks the overall defense No. 7 in the nation.
The Duluth rushing defense is tops in the NSIC in rushing yards allowed per game, limiting opponents to 61 yards per game. The Bulldogs defense ranks No. 3 in the country.
On Saturday, something will have to give in the running game and that could be the difference for the team that walks away with a victory.
Edholm believes one of the keys to game will be sustaining and finishing drives.
"They're (UMD's defense) very disciplined, they're very fast and they have a lot of good athletes," Edholm said. "We have to be assignment sharp and if we can do that we'll be able to move the ball on them ... they've got that kind of defense that can bend and not break. So I think as long as we finish drives we'll be able to make it a close game."
If Bemidji State's rushing game sputters, look for the Beavers passing game to try and take over.
Don't count out Bemidji State's passing attack, which started the season slow and has come on in recent weeks.
Edholm threw for five touchdowns last week against Crookston and has 15 passing touchdowns this season. He's managing the games with a 61 percent completion rate and just five interceptions on the year - less than one per game.
The emergence of the passing game can be correlated to the emergence of tight end Brian Leonhardt and wide receiver Andrew Schultz.
Both are capable receivers who, when left open, can make game-breaking plays.
Leonhardt had three touchdowns last week and has seven touchdowns this season on 14 catches.
"It's going to come down to who executes more and who doesn't let the little things affect them," Bemidji State running back Dustin Kroeplin said. "Every game has penalties. We're going to have to cut back on them. Every game has its uphill battles. But we're going to come prepared and I honestly believe the better team will come out on top and I honestly believe that we can be that better team and we are that better team."
E Bemidji State is currently ranked No. 10 in NCAA Super Region 3. There are four super regions in the country. At the end of the season, six teams from each of the four super regions will be selected by a comittee to participate in the national tournament.
BSU is hoping for a strong turnout because if the playoffs happen, attendance figures are used as criteria in first-round home site selection.
- Of Bemidji State's 31 total touchdowns this season, 21 have come on the ground. The last time the scoring offense was this run heavy came in 1995 when the Beavers rushed for 13 touchdowns and passed for five touchdowns.
- Today's game marks BSU's fourth game against a ranked opponent this season. BSU lost to current No. 5 MSU, Mankato 37-34 in overtime in the second game of the season, then later beat then No. 20 Winona State 24-19 and No. 14 Wayne State 21-10.
That gives BSU a record of 2-1 against ranked opponents this season.
Prior to this season the Beavers were 1-5 against ranked opponents.