In 2013, the Beulah football team featured a strong running game led by workhorse back Kamron Unruh.
Unruh, a senior and a first-team all-state selection last season, carried the pigskin 200-plus times for 1,566 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading his team to a 6-3 regular season record and a Class AA playoff berth.
This season, Beulah continues to run the ball with authority, only this time, the No. 4-ranked Miners are getting it done via ‘running back by committee.’ With Tanner Erickson, Matt Krizan and Cory Alt sharing the load, Beulah (7-2 overall) is averaging 327.1 yards rushing per game. The average is 367.3 yards over the last six games, all victories.
Erickson, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior halfback, has 801 yards and 10 touchdowns on 127 carries, all team highs. He’s coming off a 156-yard, one-touchdown performance in Beulah’s 34-8 victory over Watford City last Friday night in the regular-season finale.
Krizan, a 5-10, 165-pound junior halfback, has 736 yards and eight touchdowns on 76 rushing attempts, and Alt, a 5-11, 160-pound junior fullback, has racked up 560 yards and four six-pointers on 43 carries.
Each running back has rushed for 100 or more yards three times. All three went over the century mark against Watford City — Erickson 156, Alt 105 and Krizan 104. The Miners churned out 405 yards on the ground that night.
Miners coach Jim Dooley, who is in his third season at Beulah, is enjoying the luxury of having a yardage-consuming three-headed monster in the backfield.
“It’s a very good situation to be in,” he said. “We planned to use a one-tailback system like we did last year, but after watching these kids work at a summer (football) camp, we thought using a two-halfback system would be the best option. It’s worked out very well for us. It’s made it tough for teams to defend us. If they key on one kid, someone else will step up and make plays.”
The running game powered the Miners to a 6-1 West Region mark and second place in the league. Their only region loss was a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 1-ranked St. Mary’s the third week of the season, but Erickson said Beulah is a much better team now.
“At the start of the year we had a lot of new starters and there was a lot to get used to,” he said. “We kind of struggled early on, but we’ve gotten better each week. We’re playing well on both sides of the ball now and we’re feeling really good heading into the playoffs.”
Dooley said the three backs are similar in a number of ways.
“They’re about the same size, they run hard, and they have good speed,” he said. “Of the three, Tanner has been the most consistent. He’s the one we give the ball to when we need to pick up the tough yards, and he breaks off a big run from time to time.”
Erickson is relishing the opportunity after seeing limited action last season.
“It’s nice to be on the field and do things that help my team win,” he said. “Being a senior this is my last chance, so I’m trying to make the most of every opportunity. I’m putting everything into it.”
Krizan came into the season the most experienced of the three. He gained 478 yards in 2013 and averaged 9.4 yards per carry. This season, the average is 9.7.
Alt is the Miners’ top receiver with 10 catches for 322 yards and six touchdowns. He also leads the team with 1,038 all-purpose yards. He’s averaging 16.7 yards per touch.
Alt made what was perhaps the biggest play of the regular season for the Miners on Oct. 9. Beulah trailed Dickinson Trinity 18-13 with under a minute to play, but Alt caught a screen pass from backup quarterback Reece Hoherz and took it 59 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“Cory also returned a punt for a touchdown, so he made two huge plays for us that night,” Dooley said. “Both he and Matt are very explosive.”
Erickson said he, Krizan and Alt get the headlines, but the offensive line — center Tom Brinkman (170 pounds), tackles Isaac Ripplinger (225) and Jacey Duttenhefner (220), guards Hayden Norton (160) and Alec Battest (170), and ends Josh Remmick and Devin Sardelli — deserves most of the credit.
“When we get the ball, we count on the holes to be there. Our offensive line has given us lots of space to run in this year,” Erickson said. “Our line is the biggest reason for our success.”
“You don’t get that many yards rushing without the kids up front doing their jobs,” he said. “Our line is undersized, but those kids are quick and they execute their blocks very well.”
Second-year starting quarterback Casey Walcker has also gotten into the act. The junior has 411 yards rushing to go along with 643 passing.
“Casey’s getting a lot of tough yards for us. He runs hard, too, and he has a nose for the goal line and the first-down marker,” Dooley said. “And he’s gotten better in the passing game. That’s made us a better team.”
The Miners will host Grafton on Saturday in a state quarterfinal game. Grafton is 6-3 and the No. 3 team out of the East Region.
Dooley said the Spoilers are an athletic team that thrives on the pass.
“They go five wide. They like to spread things out,” he said. “They have a very good quarterback (Hunter Baldwin) and he has a lot of athletes to throw to. Zak Hernandez is their best player and they try to get him the ball in space. Our defense needs to step up on Saturday. Our offense can help them out by controlling the ball and keeping their offense off the field.”
Saturday’s kickoff is at 2:30 p.m.
St. Mary’s set to defend
St. Mary’s will begin defense of its state championship Saturday when it hosts Central Cass, the East Region’s fourth seed, at the Community Bowl. The quarterfinal game is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.
Central Cass is 5-4 overall and has won its last two games after losing three straight to No. 3 Wahpeton 24-12, Grafton 22-0, and No. 2 Fargo Shanley 35-6. The Squirrels qualified for the playoffs with a 40-32 road win over Valley City last Friday.
As far as St. Mary’s coach Dan Smrekar is concerned, all that matters is what the Squirrels did last week.
“They had to win on the road to get into the playoffs and they played a very good game. I’m guessing they’re a pretty confident football team right now,” he said. “Offensively they’re explosive. They have the ability to score on any play. Their special teams are strong, too. They put points on the board or give the offense good field position. They’re the fourth seed in the East Region, but they’re going to be a handful.”
Smrekar said moving junior Grady Bresnahan from running back to quarterback three weeks ago has made the Squirrels’ offense more dangerous.
“(Bresnahan) scrambles and extends the play,” he said. “He throws the ball well and he can run with it, too.”
In the last two regular season games, Brenahan has rushed for 128 yards on 16 keepers, and completed 13 of 19 passes for 206 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Saints (9-0) are coming off an impressive 38-7 victory over No. 5 Minot Ryan last Friday. They won their 12th straight game and captured their first outright Class AA West Region championship. Senior running back-linebacker Noah Krebs, who missed the previous two games nursing a knee injury, rushed for a career high 230 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a quarterback sack, a fumble recovery, and forced a fumble.
The defense was stellar again, with the starting unit not allowing a touchdown for the seventh time in eight games.
The Saints dominated each and every region opponent, outscoring the seven foes 290-49. They won each region game by at least 26 points.
However, Smrekar said a whole new season begins Saturday.
“It was a good season and a fun season. We have a lot to be proud of, but the important games start Saturday and we had better be prepared to play well,” he said. “It’s play well now or go home. Every team playing on Saturday wants to keep playing next week.”
Watford City, the West Region’s fourth seed, will travel to Fargo on Saturday to take on Shanley.
The Wolves (6-3) are led by senior quarterback Keegan Thompson, who has rushed for 905 yards and passed for another 329. Brandon Sandvik has rushed for 517 yards and nine touchdowns on 93 carries.
Shanley (8-1), winner of its last eight games, is 12-2 with three state championships in the postseason since joining the AA ranks in 2009.