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College football: Bulldogs not taking Bemidji State lightly

The way football coaches talk about an opponent, one would think every team was just a couple plays away from winning a national championship. It doesn't matter if a team has two losses or 10, the coachspeak is just about the same. But when Minne...

The way football coaches talk about an opponent, one would think every team was just a couple plays away from winning a national championship.
It doesn’t matter if a team has two losses or 10, the coachspeak is just about the same.
But when Minnesota Duluth coach Curt Wiese praised Bemidji State this week, it was well-founded.
Visiting Bemidji State (3-4) comes into today’s 1:05 p.m. contest with second-ranked UMD (7-0) hoping to be the spoiler. The Bulldogs realize that even one loss could jeopardize their playoff hopes in an ultracompetitive region, and the two teams are tied atop the NSIC North Division at 3-0.
“Watching them on film, you wouldn’t know Bemidji is any different from all the other good teams they’ve had,” Wiese said. “They are as talented as any team we’ve played this year. They had a tough start but are back on track offensively. It’s another rivalry game, and it doesn’t matter who is having a better season, this game will be hard fought till the end.”
At least Wiese didn’t say anything about throwing records out the window.
No NSIC North Division team has had as tough a schedule as Bemidji State. The Beavers’ four straight losses to open the season were against teams with a combined record of 23-5. Last month they led top-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato 10-0 after a quarter and 10-6 at the half.
“The luck of the draw wasn’t in our favor this year,” Bemidji State coach Jeff Tesch said. “Those were some good football teams we faced, but, hopefully, we’re better for it.”
The Beavers come into today’s contest at Malosky Stadium having won three straight. The biggest difference has been at quarterback, where sophomore Ryan Shields has helped right the offense.
Shields played in nine games for the Beavers as a freshman last fall and started four, including a 31-21 home loss to UMD. Shields was solid, throwing for 146 yards and two touchdowns and running for 53 yards. Bemidji led 14-0 in the second quarter and 21-14 in the third quarter before the Bulldogs scored the final 17 points to avoid the upset.
It was UMD’s 12th straight victory in the series, but it hasn’t been quite as dominating as that might indicate. The Bulldogs just have the knack, winning 26-23 in 2011 and 35-34 in 2009 after the Bemidji State kicker missed the extra point with no time left on the clock.
“There’s no fear factor,” Tesch said. “We feel like we can go there and play well. Now we just have to do it. Duluth has been in every situation. They’ve been in championship games, close games, postseason play. You’re not going to surprise them, and you’re certainly not going to beat them by luck or an official’s call. You have to beat them with sound football. We’ve had opportunities, but they just found ways to win, but at some point we’ve got to get over that hurdle.”
Bemidji State opted to use Northern Iowa transfer Jordan Hein at quarterback to start the season, intrigued by his athleticism, before Shields took over. Shields has thrown for 834 yards during the three-game winning streak, an average of 278 passing yards per game, with seven touchdown passes to just two interceptions. He also has rushed for 78 yards during that span.
“We think Jordan Hein is going to be a good football player. We just needed to settle down a bit,” Tesch said. “He was trying to do too much. Ryan came in and let the players around him help, and that’s been the biggest difference. Everyone is contributing.”
During its streak, Bemidji State cut down on the turnovers while limiting opponents’ big plays.
Shields, meanwhile, developed a strong rapport with star receiver Blake Holder (32 catches, 634 yards, 4 TDs), a transfer from Northern Illinois.
Bemidji State might not have a dazzling record, but the Beavers didn’t give up on their season. This is their Super Bowl.
“This team worked as hard when we were 0-4 as they do now,” Tesch said. “They always knew they had it in them. When we were 0-4, I said, ‘Guys, want to try to win the North Division?’ It wasn’t like, ‘Seriously?’ They said, ‘Coach, we can do this.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go do it then.’ We’ve done it up to this point, but to pull off something like that, you’re going to need to win a big game on the road against a good team, and that’s what we’ve got this week. If you get a chance to beat a team like Duluth, it’s rewarding.”

College football
BEMIDJI STATE (3-4)
AT NO. 2 UMD (7-0)
What: NSIC football game
When: 1:05 p.m. today
Where: Malosky Stadium
Forecast: Sunny with a high of 57 and 20 mph wind
TV: My9
Webcast: portal.stretch
internet.com/umd/
Radio: KQDS-AM 1490; fan1490.com

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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