By: Martin Schlegel
In the Battle for the Axe, Bemidji State chopped down the Dragons.
The Beavers (8-3) defeated the Dragons (5-6) in the final game of the season, 45-14.
Despite a valiant effort by the defense, the Dragons’ offense couldn’t overcome early sacks and turnovers. Dragons freshman quarterback Jakup Sinani was sacked nine times, including four on one drive, and threw two interceptions.
Sinani, who was impressive in his three previous starts with nine total touchdowns, looked to be humanized by a tougher defense.
Sinani hardly had a chance to get settled in the pocket as the Bemidji State defense pestered him all game. Very rarely was he untouched or forced to roll out.
“They had a good game plan against us; got to us protection-wise with some blitzes that didn’t let (Sinani) be comfortable,” Dragons head coach Steve Laqua said about Bemidji’s pass rush. “We just got to do a better job getting those picked up so he has time to make good throws.”
Beavers defensive back John Vogeler picked off Sinani’s first interception of the day at the 5-yard line. Bemidji State capitalized on the turnover with a touchdown. Bemidji State’s Mannie Kugmeh ran a wide receiver jet sweep for 27 yards for the TD.
Sinani threw his second interception on the very next drive.
Bemidji State kicker Isaac Aanerud knocked in a 27-yard field goal to extend the Beaver’s lead to 10-0 early on in the second quarter.
After a costly “hands to the face”15-yard penalty, Beavers wide receiver Jacob Anderson caught a 21-yard pass along the sidelines that eventually set up the Beavers touchdown. Bemidji State quarterback Jordan Hein lobbed up a 2-yard pass to Anderson for the TD.
To close out the half, the Beavers drove down the field into the red zone with 0:03 left. Aanerud came on for his second field goal try. The Dragons blocked the kick but couldn’t return it for any yards.
At the half, MSUM was getting severely outgained on offense. Sinani had just 27 yards to Hein’s 108. The Dragons’ rushers collected a measly 34 yards to the Beavers’ 128. With the lack of offense, MSUM trailed 17-0.
The Dragons also suffered when it came to field position. The team had seven offensive drives in the first half. None of them started in Bemidji State territory and the average MSUM drive started at its own 21-yard line.
“Trying to get those quick 3-and-outs, and try and get the offense back on the field as much as possible,” senior defensive lineman Jake Busse said about the defensive attitude heading into the second half. “At least help with the field position. We had pretty bad field position the first half.”
Going into the third quarter, Hein and the Beavers came out looking to stretch its lead. After a long kick return, Hein found Christian Lunde deep down the middle of the field for 45 yards before being shoestring tackled at the 5-yard line.
The Dragon defense held strong, stopping four Beavers’ rush attempts at a touchdown.
“We always have that mindset, ‘We just got to come and stop them. It doesn’t matter what the offense does. We can only control ourselves,’” Busse said of the defense as a whole. “That’s what we think every time we go out there.”
Bemidji State went for it on 4th-and-1. In the wildcat formation, the Beavers ran a reverse handoff to Lunde who lobbed the ball to Hein for the touchdown. The TD gave Bemidji State a 24-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, the Dragons caught its first break on offense with a long touchdown. Sinani threw to sophomore receiver Hayden Swartz for 71 yards, giving the Dragons some hope with 10:53 left in the third quarter.
“He was pressured, he was under duress but he bounced back after those first turnovers and I think that’s what you want out of your quarterback,” Laqua said about Sinani after the game. “You want a guy that’s resilient, that’s gonna keep scratching and clawing, and I think he did that.”
After some defensive stops on both sides, Hein hit Anderson deep over the middle for a 41-yard touchdown. Bemidji State, now with a 31-7 lead, began to show its dominance.
Hein tossed a back shoulder in tight man-coverage to wide receiver Blair Van Ess for 31 yards.
Sinani threw his second touchdown pass to Daniel Grande for 25 yards early in the fourth quarter, which did little more than to put a dent in the scoreboard.
Michael Washington put the exclamation on the Beavers’ win with an 18-yard touchdown run.
Battle for the Axe
With the loss, MSUM fell to 39-30-3 in the Battle for the Axe series with Bemidji State. The two teams have played each other since 1929 with the Dragons holding a 46-35-3 record in the matchup.
Originating from New Guinea, the Axe is the second oldest traveling in Division II football to The Hickory Stick, awarded to the winner of the Truman State-Northwest Missouri State game.
In total, 14 seniors played their last game in a Dragons uniform in front of their family and friends. The seniors were introduced individually and then applauded as a group once all on the field with their parents.
Laqua said the leadership among the seniors was paramount, especially during their early years.
“I think in the end they set a great example for work ethic and for belief in a program that maybe, when they came here, didn’t have a lot that was desirable about it,” Laqua said of the seniors. “They came, they certainly changed it around, I think our program has done a lot of things that are good things right now.”
Busse said the group of seniors, despite what the overall records show, have left their mark on the football program.
“Speaking for everyone, I think we have no regrets,” he said. “I know I’m still glad that I came. When we came in (the Dragons) were 4-7. I think we’re proud of what we accomplished and we set up a pretty good culture up here.”