BEMIDJI — Minnesota Duluth sophomore Javien Versey came off the edge untouched early in the third quarter of the Bulldogs’ NSIC showdown with Bemidji State.
Versey’s hands made contact with the football just as Beavers punter Jacob Anderson made contact with his foot. Advantage Versey, but his first attempt at scooping up the blocked punt slipped through his fingers. His second attempt didn’t and he rumbled into the end zone from about 14 yards out for a touchdown.
Of all the big plays UMD had on Saturday, in particular in the second half, that one was the biggest as the No. 13 Bulldogs bounced Bemidji State 42-7 in an NSIC showdown before 4,345 at Chet Anderson Stadium.
“Everything we do in a game, we do in practice, and we practice that a lot,” Versey said. “We do it every day, so we’re used to it. You have to make that play when you get your opportunity. I was going a little too fast at first, so I had to tell myself to slow down and just get the ball. Any time it’s a blocked punt or field goal, you always go for it (a touchdown). You never just fall on it.”
After Jalen Frye capped the opening drive of the game with a 4-yard touchdown run to put Bemidji State up 7-0, it was all UMD as the Bulldogs scored 42 unanswered points, including 35 in another electric second half. UMD (4-0) has outscored opponents by a combined 104-14 in the second half this season.
Versey’s big play appeared to have ignited a powder keg as UMD scored every which way in the second half, including Armani Carmickle’s 79-yard touchdown on a flea flicker that had Bemidji State completely duped, senior safety Bill Atkins’ 76-yard interception return for a touchdown and Cass Martin’s 77-yard touchdown run.
John Larson threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns and UMD forced five turnovers on three fumbles and two interceptions as the Bulldogs won their 24th straight NSIC game dating to Sept. 16, 2017.
“You’ve got to hand it to our defense,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “They continued to stay on the gas and continued to perform. But obviously, Javien’s play was big. We needed momentum. We were quiet again on the offensive side early on tonight, but Javien had an opportunity to block a punt and took advantage of it. It was great for him to make a play like that in a big game like this.”
Wiese said UMD hadn’t run a flea flicker since 2013, also at Bemidji State.
“They made big play after big play,” Bemidji State coach Brent Bolte said. “How often do you hold a team to 1 of 12 on third down and 1 of 5 on fourth down and lose by 35 points?”
Bemidji State quarterback Brandon Alt, who was injured in the season opener, came out for warmups but was a scratch. Then backup Jared Henning was hurt in the first half and was replaced by third stringer Emmett Enright.
Already two quarterbacks down, Enright got hurt on Bemidji State’s last play from scrimmage running the football and had to be helped off the field.
“We might have to have you go out there and start slinging,” Bolte said. “It’s crazy.”
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Larson didn’t take the hits like he did in last week’s 20-14 win over Bemidji State and should be ready to roll for another NSIC showdown, this time at No. 3 Minnesota State-Mankato (4-0).
That could be a game where special teams make the difference, and UMD appears stronger this season in that regard, with punter Cameron Hausman also looking solid on Saturday in helping the Bulldogs flip field.
Versey, meanwhile, will take any opportunity he gets as he also had a touchdown saving tackle on Saturday.
Like Atkins, who was highlighted in Saturday’s News Tribune, Versey played on offense in high school at Minneapolis Patrick Henry, where he was a wide receiver and running back and scored more than his share of touchdowns. But he’s not in high school any more.
“That was my first touchdown in three years,” he said. “I scored so many touchdowns in high school, but even in college, it’s all the same. It all feels good.”
UMD recruited Versey to play defense, unlike Atkins, who switched from wide receiver to defense while already with the Bulldogs.
“They knew I was more of a speedy player, and they wanted more speed on defense,” Versey said.
Atkins swore his hands are receiver quality, but Versey was a little more realistic.
“There’s a reason I might be on defense,” he said with a smile.