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FOOTBALL: Bemidji State conquers Vikings 28-24 in NCAA Tournament debut

The history didn’t matter to the Beavers. They’d rather write their own.

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Bemidji State freshman Sam McGath (17) powers into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A millennium ago, Nordic vikings controlled the Scandinavian seas with less than pure intentions.

But Augustana’s present-day adaptation of the voyagers didn’t strike much fear into the Bemidji State football team on Saturday.

“We’ve come into our own,” BSU head coach Brent Bolte said. “The kids just believed. Regardless of the scenarios -- and we’ve been in some crazy ones all year -- the kids believe.”

Lore will instead surround the Beavers, who furthered their historic season with a 28-24 win over the No. 25 Vikings in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“We’ve been doing it all year,” freshman Sam McGath said. “We’ve got big players, and they make big-time plays. We just have trust in everyone to do their job.”

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Bemidji State junior Brendan Beaulieu (19) taps his feet in bounds to score a touchdown during an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)

No Bemidji State team has ever sailed into waters as treacherous as Saturday’s. BSU is the only program in Division II making its NCAA Tournament debut this year.

But the history doesn’t matter to the Beavers. They’d rather write their own.

“I feel like we don’t get respected by a lot of people… within Division II college football,” senior Gabe Ames said. “But we don’t let that affect us. No matter who cheers for us or who doesn’t cheer for us, we keep going.”

McGath -- the backup quarterback -- rushed for the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Then in the final minutes, Ames -- a linebacker -- dropped back in coverage for a fourth-down pass breakup that immediately led to victory formation.

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“Everybody has to have a role, right?” Bolte said.

Bemidji State (10-2) also avenged a sour homecoming loss to Augustana (9-3), but even that feels like centuries ago. The redemption is almost poetic, and the plunder is satisfying revenge.

“We got them when it mattered,” Ames said. “And that’s all that matters to me, that we got them when it mattered. They can have that first one.”

Much like in its best games of the season, BSU started hot. Brendan Beaulieu and Malik Williams punched the Vikings in the mouth with touchdown receptions of 23 and 67 yards from Brandon Alt, generating a 14-3 statement within six minutes.

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Bemidji State quarterback Brandon Alt (10) throws a pass during an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)

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Williams added a 19-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, breaking the program’s TD receptions record with the 27th of his career.

But the fast start was wiped out by a terribly lopsided third quarter. Augustana flipped the game on its head with a 14-0 point differential, a 187-17 yard differential and 11:42 time of possession. What was a 21-10 Beaver lead at halftime suddenly crumbled into a 24-21 deficit.

Yet early in the fourth, nose tackle Josh Wleh stopped a fourth-and-1 rush for no gain deep in Bemidji State territory. That was the start of momentum changing hands for the final time.

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Bemidji State senior Malik Williams (6) races downfield during an NCAA Tournament game against Augustana on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (BSU photo)

“Obviously they had a couple really nice drives to start the third quarter, which got us on our heels a little bit,” Bolte said. “The turning point was that big fourth-down stop.”

On the ensuing drive, McGath resumed his role as the team’s wildcat quarterback, going up the middle for the 2-yard go-ahead score.

“Being a freshman, it’s kind of bright lights out there,” said McGath, who was the team’s leading rusher with 77 yards on 13 carries. “I’m trusting everyone around me, trusting the (offensive) line, knowing they’re going to make a hole and I’m going to hit it.”

The defense finished it out with three more stands, sending BSU to the Round of 16.

“Certainly, when you take a deep breath, it’s been a historic season,” Bolte said. “Winning in the postseason is what we’re trying to accomplish here. That’s off the checklist, and now we’ll see if we can play well on the road against another really good opponent.”

The Beavers advance to play No. 9 Colorado School of Mines at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, in Golden, Colo.

Bemidji State 28, Augustana 24

BSU 14 7 0 7 -- 28

AU 10 0 14 0 -- 24

First quarter -- BSU TD, Beaulieu 23-yard catch from Alt (Hoffer PAT), 7-0 BSU; AU FG, Limburg 20-yard kick, 7-3 BSU; BSU TD, Williams 67-yard catch from Alt (Hoffer PAT), 14-0 BSU; AU TD, Jones 11-yard catch from Saddler (Limburg PAT), 14-10 BSU.

Second quarter -- BSU TD, Williams 19-yard catch from Alt (Hoffer PAT), 21-10 BSU.

Third quarter -- AU TD, Uttecht 5-yard catch from Saddler (Limburg PAT), 21-17 BSU; AU TD, Graham 35-yard rush (Limburg PAT), 24-21 AU.

Fourth quarter -- BSU TD, McGath 2-yard rush (Hoffer PAT), 28-24 BSU.

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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