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FOOTBALL: O-line shuffle winning battles in the trenches for Bemidji State

The “next man up” mentality may not be embodied more perfectly than within the trenches for the Bemidji State football team.

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The Bemidji State offensive line readies for the snap during a game against Southwest Minnesota State on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The “next man up” mentality may not be embodied more perfectly than within the trenches for the Bemidji State football team.

“Whenever we’ve got to shuffle guys around or bring somebody up, we’re all ready to step up,” true freshman right guard Zach Ott said. “We’ve had a lot of great coaching.”

The Beavers have lost two senior starters on the offensive line this year, so they’re currently rolling out two sophomores and three freshmen to protect Brandon Alt under center. Despite their youth, though, they haven’t missed a beat.

“It’s one unit, so we all have to work together,” sophomore center Jake Gannon said. “Communication is probably the biggest thing for us. That’s the biggest stepping stone, learning how to communicate and all getting on the same page.”

Bemidji State has only allowed six sacks all season, which is tied for the eighth-best in Division II.

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Bemidji State freshman Kellan Wandtke (64) protects quarterback Brandon Alt's blind side during a game against Southwest Minnesota State on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“That’s a pretty remarkable stat line. … They’ve done a nice job,” BSU head coach Brent Bolte said. “It’s not easy. You’re going against a lot of good defenses in the NSIC and a lot of good players overall.”

Bemidji State currently has two senior-sized holes in the O-line because left tackle Ryan Fuller and center James Huwe suffered significant injuries early in the year. A game of musical chairs has ensued, as four of the five spots on the offensive line look different now than in Week 1.

Ty Cobb has anchored right tackle all season as the one constant. Gannon has moved from right guard to center, and Ott has filled in as the starting right guard. Kellan Wandtke shifted from left guard to left tackle, and Connor Kovas has taken hold of left guard.

“The game starts up front,” Ott said. “The quarterback can’t do his job unless he has protection, and the running back can’t run the ball unless he has running lanes. … You have a lot of responsibility there, and you’ve got to make sure you take care of it.”

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Bemidji State freshman Zach Ott (60) and sophomore Jake Gannon (62) block during a game against Southwest Minnesota State on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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The Beavers have delivered so far, to the tune of the seventh-best passing attack in the country at 325.1 yards per game. Under the protection of his linemen, Alt has set the single-season program record for touchdown passes (34) , while he’s on pace to break the yardage record and completions record this weekend.

“A lot of it goes into our preparation for the game,” Gannon said. “You’re getting thrown a lot of different twists, stunts and blitzes from these defenses. Knowing what we’re going to see before game day is the biggest part. (We have to) pick them up and give Alt some time back there.”

Alt will need time to operate this weekend, as BSU faces Northern State in the second-to-last game of the regular season with the NSIC North Division crown at stake. Bemidji State (7-2, 4-0 NSIC North) can clinch at least a share of the division title with a win, but the Wolves (7-2, 3-1 NSIC North) will overtake first place with a victory of their own.

“This is going to be an extremely tough challenge,” Bolte said. “It’s going to be fun. Just like going anywhere -- to Duluth, to Mankato and Sioux Falls -- we’ve played in some tough environments. This will be a little bit tougher just because of the meaning behind it.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, in Aberdeen, S.D., where the resilient offensive line will be ready to withstand NSU’s best attack.

“It’s going to be a crazy environment,” Gannon said. “We’re both looking for our first North title in a while, both teams. We know they’re going to play hard, and we’re going to play hard. I’m excited to see how we do.”

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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