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Stromgren column: Bemidji State football presented with rare opportunity

BSU quarterback Derek Edholm. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

I've been covering sports long enough to know what playoffs feel like.

Rarely do I get that feeling during the regular season.

But I had that feeling talking to the Bemidji State football players after practice Thursday. The players answered questions as quick as I could spit them out.

It felt like gameday two full days before kickoff.

The Beavers will need that kind energy and then some more against defending national champion and current No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth Saturday at 1 p.m. Chet Anderson Stadium.

The final regular season home game is setting up to be a classic. Both teams are among the best in the country at running the ball and defending against the run. It should be football at its finest.

Bemidji State is in a position with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Lose and the season ends.

Win and live another week.

Win three more times and make the Division II playoffs for the first time in school history.

The players are treating Duluth like a playoff game and they are hopeful for a strong fan turnout to make it a true playoff atmosphere.

For Bemidji State, games with this much on the line are rare.

A large fan turnout could make a difference beyond Saturday afternoon. A capacity crowd and three BSU wins to close out the season could very well mean a Division II national playoff game in Bemidji. That would be a first in school history.

It has been a surprising season for Bemidji State with success built on a creative, ball-control offense.

In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins have made the Wildcat offensive formation trendy.

Bemidji State has its own Wildcat. I call it the Beaver Cleaver.

Beaver quarterbacks Derek Edholm and Lance Rongstad split time under center each game in an unorthodox, dual-quarterback offense. Both have the legs to scramble and make plays happen on every down.

Are they going to pass? Are they going to run? Your guess is as good as mine and the cleaver is driving defensive coordinators nuts this season.

That's what has made Bemidji State football so entertaining this year. They are rushing for an astonishing 220 average yards per game -- the only more impressive comparable number is in Duluth.

The Bulldogs average 310 yards per game on the legs of dynamic running back Isaac Odim, who has rushed for 1,258 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.

Bemidji State has been equal to Odim with Edholm, Rongstad and the breakout season for freshman running back Dustin Kroeplin. The Beaver trio has rushed for 1,538 yards and 18 touchdowns so far this season.

If those stats play out on Saturday, there will be over 500 yards of rushing offense between the two teams. That's a track meet.

The Bemidji State players admit the Bulldogs have more explosive superstars. What the Beavers lack in superstars they make up with teamwork.

Teamwork is how the Beavers have to win this year.

Teamwork is easy to talk about and harder to implement, which makes Bemidji State's success this season a testament to the coaching staff.

The BSU coaches have convinced players from as far away as Texas, Arizona, Alaska and Illinois to come to a football program not as fully funded as the bigger schools in the conference.

Bemidji State football currently competes at a scholarship disadvantage and is making the best of it.

Perhaps that situation will change in the coming years with the financial benefits expected from men's hockey program transition to the WCHA.

For now, there are no complaints and no worries about what they do not have. They believe in themselves, their fundamental talent and their potential.

Bemidji State is a working-man's football team: run hard and tackle hard.

That mentality has translated into wins against No. 20 Winona State and No. 14 Wayne State - teams built on finesse and a few key players.

At the beginning of the season, it was clear the Beavers would face four nationally-ranked teams.

It started with a 37-34 overtime loss to current No. 5 MSU, Mankato in the second week of the season. The Beavers were one first down away from taking a victory knee before the Mavericks avoided the upset.

Only in the homecoming game have the Beavers not shown the discipline needed to compete with the best in the country.

Minnesota-Duluth is the last on the ranked list for the regular season.

That type of hard schedule is the new reality in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

The conference emerged as the top Division II league in the country when it absorbed the four former NCC teams and competitively funded large schools last season (Duluth, Augustana, St. Cloud State and Mankato).

In football, Bemidji State has held its own in this new climate where a national power may loom every other week.

Football at its best will be played Saturday afternoon at Chet Anderson Stadium in what looks to be a perfect fall day with sunny skies and a temperatures in the low 50s.

Bemidji State is in an enviable position in Division II football playing the defending national champion and a top-10 team in the country with the playoffs on the line. At home.

Not many teams in the country can claim that at this point in the season.

A victory in a game like this early in the season could be considered a fluke.

The Bulldogs know what this game is to Bemidji State.

That's why a Beaver win this week - against a team of Minnesota-Duluth's caliber - would be a statement of legitimacy and respect.