While much has been made of the Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State football rivalry over the years, to be a true rivalry, as Beavers coach Brent Bolte pointed out, it should be little less one-sided.
“We have to win one eventually,” Bolte said.
And Bemidji State hasn’t won in Duluth since — get this — World War II, a couple months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Oct. 10, 1941, as a matter of fact.
The Beavers (5-2) hope to change that this week when they take on the 16th-ranked Bulldogs (6-1) at 2:05 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in an NSIC North Division game at Malosky Stadium.
“You know what you’re going to get when you play Duluth,” Bolte said. “They’re a well-coached, good football team. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. I’ve gotten to become pretty good friends with (UMD coach) Curt Wiese over the years. He’s a good dude, works hard and does things the right way.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Wiese said. “Generally our games have been tight and come down to the wire.”
Down to the wire, perhaps, but with UMD ultimately pulling it out.
UMD leads the series 48-10-1 and has won 18 straight against the Beavers. The last Bemidji victory was a 35-26 home triumph on Oct. 23, 1999 — 22 years to the day of this week’s game.
A glance at some of the good ones … there was a 42-38 UMD victory in Bemidji in 2001, then there was a 26-23 UMD victory in Bemidji in 2011. There were tight games in 2015 (14-9), 2016 (54-47) and 2018 (26-19).
“I think Bemidji is as well coached and hard-nosed as any team we have in the conference,” Wiese said. “We know what we’re getting into playing them.”
Despite all those good games already mentioned, the one that will always stick out was the Bulldogs’ 35-34 victory in Bemidji on Oct. 24, 2009, when the seventh-ranked Bulldogs — the reigning national champions — survived with a 35-34 victory after the Bemidji kicker missed an extra point with no time remaining.
Wiese, UMD’s offensive coordinator at the time, was in the coaches’ box when he told his fellow assistants, “Well, it’s a win … now let’s get the heck out of here.”
Not too much has changed since then. Wiese is now head coach of the Bulldogs while Bolte replaced longtime Beavers coach Jeff Tesch, but the blueprint for successful football remains.
Both teams like to be aggressive on both sides of the ball but in particular on defense, where UMD leads the 14-team NSIC with 24 quarterback sacks while Bemidji State, with 16, is tied for eighth despite being younger on that side of the ball this season.
Bolte said the Beavers and Bulldogs shared approach goes beyond the X’s and O’s.
“We both get good kids who play hard and are going to be team guys,” Bolte said.
Now, if Bemidji could just start winning a couple of the close ones.
“It’s certainly a rivalry that …,” Bolte paused, catching himself. “We’re trying to make it a rivalry. They are a team that we know we have to beat to have a chance to win the North (Division), and we have to get that done one of these years.”
Much of the talk around the league this season has been about the increased parity, with every team having at least one loss and upstarts like Northern State and Wayne State enjoying strong seasons at 5-2.
With the league not playing football last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to those players who wanted it, you’re seeing a little more experienced product this year.
While UMD returned nine of 15 seniors from last year who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility, Bemidji State returned 12 of 20.
“It sure does make a difference,” Bolte said. “I was bummed that we couldn’t get more of those kids back. They bring a lot of leadership and experience. Those are the kind of guys who guide the ship.”
After last week’s 33-13 homecoming victory over Concordia-St. Paul, Wiese agreed there is more parity in the league.
“I think our league has improved over the last year and a half,” Wiese said. “There are some really good teams at the top, and the teams towards the bottom are still good football teams. They’re athletic and they’re well coached. And each week, between injuries and COVID, you don’t know who’s suiting who. Every week’s a battle.”
Wiese, however, wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the best the league has been.
“It’s hard to say,” Wiese said. “Top to the bottom, in terms of quality football, this is as good as the league has been, but the playoffs will tell us how our league stacks up nationally.”
Teams across the country are likely more experienced, and in football, that makes a big difference as boys become men after their teens.
A good example is this: UMD was a little slow to update its roster sizes in the preseason and got them posted just before the Bulldogs’ season opener Sept. 2 at Upper Iowa. Almost every player was heavier, and in some cases, a lot heavier.
“It was just weird with the year off,” Bolte said. “More teams had the opportunity to retain more players, and teams had the opportunity to recruit two cycles of kids, whether it was transfers or whatever. Teams that were maybe in the middle of the pack before took advantage of that to put a better product out there.”
Among the revelers tailgating in the Malosky Stadium parking lot for homecoming last week were family and friends of the Shepley family of Burnsville, Minnesota.
The group posted a sign, “Battle of the Shepley Bros,” with a photo of Concordia-St. Paul junior wide receiver Jake Shepley and Minnesota Duluth sophomore safety Marcus Shepley.
The Shepleys had quite the spread.
“Years of trial and error,” Marcus Shepley quipped.
As good as that was, it was even better when the game started as Marcus tackled his older brother after Jake made a catch in the Bulldogs’ 33-13 win.
“It was awesome,” Marcus Shepley said. “It was definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life … I made sure to make him feel it.”
Remarkably, they aren’t the first Shepley brothers to play college football as oldest brother Brett Shepley was a wide receiver at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Tucker Shepley played football and basketball at Northwestern in St. Paul.
Brett and Jake played against each other in 2018, and now Marcus is coming off for the Bulldogs.
“Marcus plays a little more every week for us in the secondary and even filled in for us as a punter early in the year,” Wiese said. “If you have four boys who all go on to play collegiate sports, that’s an athletic family.”
Jake Shepley finished with three receptions for 36 yards for the Golden Bears while Marcus Shepley had four tackles for the Bulldogs.
“Marcus is a very laid-back collegiate athlete,” Wiese said. “He doesn’t take life too seriously, and I mean that in a good way. He’s got a unique personality. He’s very athletic and extremely intelligent, and that’s why he continues to earn more playing time on Saturdays, because we continue to trust him more and more each week.”
Marcus does have a personality. When chatting earlier this week with a News Tribune scribe, himself the youngest of seven brothers, Shepley confirmed that the youngest brother is always the smartest, best looking and most athletic.
“Same here,” Marcus Shepley said. “Easily.”
BEMIDJI STATE AT NO. 16 MINNESOTA DULUTH
What: NSIC North Division football game
When: 2:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Malosky Stadium
Records: Bemidji State 5-2, UMD 6-1
Forecast: mostly sunny with a high of 48 and 6 mph wind
TV: My9 Sports Network
Radio: KTCO 98.9 FM
BEMIDJI STATE AT MINNESOTA DULUTH
National rankings: Bemidji State isn’t ranked; UMD is No. 16 in the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II poll and No. 13 in the d2football.com Top 25 poll.
Series: UMD leads the series 48-10-1, including a 42-7 Bulldogs victory in their last meeting Sept. 28, 2019, in Bemidji. UMD has won 18 straight against the Beavers.
Coaches: Brent Bolte is 37-15 in his fifth season at Bemidji State. Curt Wiese is 77-16 in eight seasons at UMD.
Outlook: Bemidji State rallied with 22 second-half points to earn a 22-19 NSIC home victory over Minnesota State-Moorhead last week in their 72nd “Battle of the Axe” rivalry. The Beavers, who overcame four turnovers, got a 7-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Brandon Alt to senior wide receiver Malik Williams and a two-point conversion with 39 seconds remaining to pull off the comeback. Alt finished 30-for-45 passing for 298 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions, while Williams caught seven passes for 99 yards and two TDs.
The Beavers are explosive offensively, averaging 32 points per game. Alt has thrown for 2,271 yards this season — good for an average of 324.4 ypg — with 22 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Brendan Baulieu has caught 40 passes for 688 yards and four touchdowns and Williams has 27 receptions for 563 yards and nine touchdowns.
Coach Brent Bolte said he hasn’t been thinking playoffs (cue the Jim Mora “playoffs” line).
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “We’re just trying to grind through the meat of it here in the North (Division). We feel good that we’re 5-2, but it’s been such an odd year all around, with so many ups and downs and all arounds, I haven’t even got caught up on anything else. We’re just trying to go 1-0 this week.”
While the offense has not been super-balanced, Makaio Harn has rushed 100 times for 474 yards and Sage Booker has rushed 113 times for 378 yards, with both backs having one TD. Despite being 5-2, Bemidji State is almost giving up as many points as they’ve scored, yielding 30 points per game. The Beavers are younger on defense and the non-division schedule hasn’t exactly been easy, including perennial power Minnesota State-Mankato and Augustana, both losses, but victories against Sioux Falls and Wayne State. Those four are your NSIC South Division leaders and have a combined record of 21-7. Bemidji State has only given up a combined 33 points the past two weeks.
“That group is a little better now,” Bolte said of his defense. “We’ve had players going in and out of the lineup, but we’re starting to get guys healthy and get depth back.”
UMD is coming off a 33-13 homecoming win against Concordia-St. Paul. The score was only 3-0 at halftime, with the lone score being a career-long 51-yard field goal that Curt Cox hit as time expired before halftime. Cox hit three more field goals in the third quarter en route to earning NSIC Special Teams Player of the Week. UMD freshman Logan Graetz, a 6-foot-4 freshman who transferred from North Dakota State, was 15-for-26 passing for 264 yards and two TDs to lead the Bulldogs.
UMD’s senior quarterback, John Larson, saw his first action since missing two games and wore a protective covering over his right elbow. Larson made some plays as a runner, even as a blocker, but only attempted one pass, a 3-yard dump that resembled a shot put. UMD coach Curt Wiese said the Bulldogs will expand the Larson playbook as he keeps improving.
Junior linebacker Brad Dati continued his stellar season by leading the defense with eight tackles, including 1.5 for a loss.
UMD amassed 511 yards of offense — including 28 first downs — but will be looking to do a better job at finishing off drives this weekend.
— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune