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FRIEZ COLUMN: 5 keys that carried Bemidji State football back to the NCAA Tournament

After watching just about every Bemidji State snap from the regular season, here are what I believe to be the five biggest keys of BSU's return to the race for a national championship.

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The Beavers run out onto the field before a game against Northern State on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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A lot has to go right for any college football team to make the NCAA Tournament. But with the Bemidji State football team, a few vital elements stand out as the biggest reasons why the Beavers are dancing again this year.

After watching just about every BSU snap from the regular season, here are what I believe to be the five biggest keys of Bemidji State’s return to the race for a national championship -- which starts with a 1 p.m. kickoff against Winona State on Saturday, Nov. 19, at Chet Anderson Stadium.

A defensive renaissance

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Bemidji State senior Zollie Kaplan (18) rushes the quarterback in a game against Concordia-St. Paul on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Micah Friez / Bemidji Pioneer

The “Gang Green” defense lost its mojo in 2021 and allowed 31.6 points per game -- which adds up to 411 points, the most in school history. But in 2022, that group has flourished in a spectacular renaissance behind heralded first-year defensive coordinator Marcus McLin.

In my opinion, the revival starts with Zollie Kaplan. He was good last year, but this year the senior pass rusher has 12 sacks, which ranks sixth in the nation and is Bemidji State’s most since 1999. His 23.5 career sacks are second-most in program history, as well.

But Kaplan’s not alone: The defensive line as a whole is menacing all around. Not much of anything gets past linebackers Spencer Wehr and Max Buduris. Transfer cornerback Princeten Harris has been a force in the secondary, while fellow defensive backs Colton Herman and Caleb Young are studs.

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The Beavers surrendered just 17.5 points per game during the regular season, ranking 23rd in Division II, and they haven’t given up more than 16 since September.

An easier schedule after Week 3

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Bemidji State sophomore Sam McGath (17) scores a touchdown in the third quarter against Minnesota Duluth on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Nine straight wins is impressive no matter whom you face. But it also helped that BSU had a lighter schedule after its 0-2 start, particularly after Week 3.

In Weeks 4-6, Bemidji State faced 0-3 Upper Iowa, 0-4 Minot State and 0-5 Concordia-St. Paul -- winning by an average score of 50-7. Talk about some get-right games.

There were still big hills to climb -- a 41-16 win over Minnesota Duluth was particularly impressive, and a 24-14 win over Northern State was as hard-fought as they come.

The Beavers benefitted from playing in a weaker NSIC North Division and avoiding some of the stronger NSIC South teams. That shouldn’t be held against them, though, and the playoffs are their chance to prove that a team from the North can hold its own -- much like they proved last year.

The Brandon Alt-Brendan Beaulieu connection

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Bemidji State junior Brandon Alt makes a pass in the third quarter against Minnesota State on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

One of the best quarterbacks and one of the best wide receivers in the country both wear Bemidji State green.

Brandon Alt and Brendan Beaulieu are two of the premier athletes at their positions, and they’ve been lighting it up together for almost a decade. The two developed their chemistry at Cottage Grove High School, and now it’s reached its peak at the Chet.

Beaulieu is Alt’s favorite target, which has helped him become arguably the greatest wide receiver in program history. He has BSU records for career receiving yards (3,528), career receptions (204), career receiving TDs (33), single-season receiving yards (1,318 in 2021) and single-season receptions (76 in 2021). He’s six catches and 12 yards shy of re-breaking those single-season records, too.

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Alt, meanwhile, is one of the greatest quarterbacks that Bemidji State has ever seen. He’s the program leader in career touchdown passes (tied with 89), single-season touchdown passes (46 in 2021) and single-season passing yards (4,245 in 2021). He’s also 249 yards away from becoming the program’s all-time leader in passing yards.

And he’s still coming back for one more year in 2023.

For now, though, the Alt-Beaulieu connection -- and all of “Zone 6,” which also features Dhel Duncan-Busby, Joey Baron, Andrew Manuele and Jake Hill -- has been off the charts.

The Beavers led the nation with 336.8 yards of passing offense during the regular season. And there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to attack through the air in the playoffs.

The RBs owning the unsung hero role

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Bemidji State junior Sage Booker (6) jukes a defender during a game against U-Mary on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Bismarck, N.D.
Courtesy / U-Mary Athletics

While the aerial display has swept up most of the headlines, BSU’s running backs have flown under the radar. But they shouldn’t.

The three-headed monster of Jalen Frye, Sage Booker and Jarrett Gronski all thrived in the backfield as the unsung heroes of a dynamic offense. All three are averaging at least 4.1 yards per rush, and they’ve combined for 19 rushing TDs on the year.

No matter who’s back there, Bemidji State wields a legitimate threat to break loose on the ground. They’ve all started games, all been deployed in a variety of ways and all threaten with shifty moves and in-your-face, punishing runs. They’re almost interchangeable, yet all indispensable.

Sam McGath has also excelled in his wildcat quarterback role again this year, and Bemidji State has produced 153 rushing yards per game this season.

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Inspiration from Bryce Duffy

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Bemidji State junior Jarrett Klein (4) points to the name "Duffy" on his arm after an interception during the second quarter against Minnesota Duluth on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium. Klein's teammate, Bryce Duffy, suffered a spinal contusion the week prior.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

The worst moment of BSU’s season came on Oct. 15 at Minnesota State Moorhead, when senior tight end/fullback Bryce Duffy suffered a spinal contusion in a scary scene.

But the resilience that followed was inspiring.

The team was emotional in crushing UMD the following week, honoring Duffy in all sorts of ways. Two weeks later, Duffy returned to Chet Anderson Stadium and served as an honorary captain, walking to midfield for the pregame coin flip with a hearty ovation rooting him on.

Duffy has been missed on the field, but the Beavers’ collective response in the wake of such a gut-wrenching injury has been nothing short of amazing.

It’s taken a lot to get back to the playoffs, but Bryce Duffy is right up there as one of the strongest catalysts of this historic run.

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Bemidji State senior Bryce Duffy, center, walks out with his parents for the coin flip before a game against Northern State on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Chet Anderson Stadium. Duffy suffered a spinal injury earlier this season and returned to the BSU sideline for the first time since on Nov. 5.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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