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Bemidji State travels to face tough Mankato squad in first road test

Bemidji State wide receiver Justin Lee (7) outruns Upper Iowa’s Jordan Andrea (5) during last week’s 25-23 Beaver victory. Lee led the team in receiving last week, catching six passes for 78 yards. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Last Friday’s home opener against Upper Iowa wasn’t perfect for the Bemidji State football team.

Missed tackles, lots of penalties and slew of unanswered points (16) from the Upper Iowa offense late in the game nearly cost the Beavers last week. 

Only a muffed field goal snap by the Peacocks with time expiring ensured the Beavers the 25-23 victory.

Today, the Beavers will have to work those kinks out quickly if they hope to compete against Minnesota State Mankato. BSU takes on the Mavericks at 6 p.m. tonight at Blakeslee Stadium. And the Beavers are well aware that they won’t be able to make the same kinds of mistakes this time around.

Justin Lee (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

“We’ve worked hard on eliminating things we can control,” BSU head coach Jeff Tesch said. “Snap counts, assignments, fundamentals, blocking techniques. We’re going to go down there, try to execute our base stuff, do it well and do it quickly.”

The Beavers (1-0, 1-0 NSIC) gained 358 yards against the Peacocks and moved the ball with ease – that is, when they weren’t being penalized. BSU’s offensive line was whistled three times for false starts and three more times for holding.

That won’t fly against the Mavericks (1-0, 1-0), who are coming off a 44-10 road win at NSIC newcomers Minot State. Mankato’s defense gave up a total of 32 yards to Minot State, including stuffing them for negative 44 on the ground.

Bemidji State knows yardage may be a little harder to come by against a stout MSU defense – one that was tops in the conference against the pass last season.

“They have very athletic outside linebackers and their cornerbacks and safeties are real aggressive and tough to beat,” said BSU quarterback Lance Rongstad, who threw for 228 yards and a career-high four touchdowns against the Peacocks.

In other words, he may have a tougher time finding so many open options today. Seven different Beavers caught passes last week.

“If our receivers can block well on the edge, we should be able to get outside on them,” he said. “But then again, they are real fast and they slot the ball well, so it’s going to be more of an effort and assignment thing if we want to compete with them.”

Even though Upper Iowa’s defense was respectable, the Mavericks may be the first true test for the BSU offense. But the Beavers will be back at full strength this week, with senior running back Dustin Kroeplin returning to the lineup. Kroeplin sat out the Upper Iowa game.

“I think it’s too early to pinpoint our identity on offense, especially since we didn’t have Kroeplin last week,” BSU senior wideout Justin Lee said. “But this will be a true test of our offense. There are certainly a lot of things we can improve on that we will improve on. Finishing drives are a big thing. 

“We had a few drives with a few plays where we ate up a bunch of yards but didn’t score. Dustin should help on that front.”

Lee caught a team-high six passes for 78 yards against Upper Iowa, and may well be Rongstad’s top option again this week. All-American tight end Brian Leonhardt is questionable for today’s game. He hurt his ankle late against Upper Iowa and didn’t return.

Rongstad and Lee said they’ve been practicing all week with the understanding that Leonhardt may not play, so they’re ready for that possibility.

“Not much has changed as far as the gameplan,” Lee said. “We’ve just got to move the ball better and finish drives.”

One goal this week is to improve the ground game.

 “Hopefully we can get the running game going a little better this week,” Rongstad said. “We did a very poor job last week. They had very good linebackers, and we were still working our new linemen in. But I think once they get more comfortable with their assignments, and being in a game it will get better as time goes on.”

The Beaver defense will also look to do some things differently against a run-first Mankato offense. Running back Thomas Connor and quarterback John Wolf combined for 161 yards on the ground at Minot; in all the Mavs ran for 241.

BSU defensive coordinator Rich Jahner said the Beavers would try some different options at safety this week to counter the power running game – namely, giving sophomore Scott Christensen more reps along with junior Jordan Abaroa and sophomore Dylan Valentine.

“Last Friday, we didn’t know what to do,” Jahner said of the inexperienced defensive backfield’s first game. “This week we’re hoping that Scott’s physical style of play will be more conducive to a power running team like MSU.”

Janher also noted that the Beavers missed too many tackles in week one, something that led to far too many big plays for the Peacocks.

Traveling to Mankato and waiting around to play a 6 p.m. game against a ranked opponent – the Mavs are No. 11 in the latest poll – can always get dicey, but the Beavers don’t think they’ll have any trouble getting up for this one.

“It’s an exciting challenge,” Lee said. “The atmosphere is going to be outrageous. I think as far as getting up for the game, it won’t be a problem. We just have to stay focused and conserve energy throughout the day.” 

Jack Hittinger

Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.

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