There are two ways to remember the 2012 Dickinson State football season:
One is to forget about it and act like it never happened. The season is over. Bring on the next.
The second, and undoubtedly better, option is for it to be evoked as a lesson learned and as the season which helped the program take a step toward improving in every aspect.
Truth be told, the Blue Hawks’ 2-9 finish in their first season in the Frontier Conference wasn’t entirely unexpected. They came into the season picked to finish second-to-last by the league’s coaches and their projected fifth-string running back, senior Presley Straub, was thrust into a starting role before fall practice even began.
Combine that with an uncharacteristically young defense, a suspect passing game, a handful of injuries, a freshman-loaded group of special team starters and DSU stepping into perhaps the NAIA’s best football conference made a perfect storm of struggle for the Blue Hawks, their first time with back-to-back losing seasons in head coach Hank Biesiot’s 37-year career and the team’s worst winning percentage since 1966.
In the old days, settlers had their share of difficulties moving west toward a new frontier. DSU’s move to the Frontier was no different.
The Blue Hawks’ only two wins were dramatic come-from-behind, last-minute, one-point victories. One of those came against a former Dakota Athletic Conference opponent and neither was over a team that finished with a winning record.
DSU beat Montana State-Northern 21-20 on Sept. 15 and made Biesiot the all-time winningest NAIA football coach with an 8-7 victory on Oct. 13 at Jamestown College.
While two wins are better than none, the worst part was that neither was convincing and both took out-of-the-norm performances just for DSU to come away victorious.
The Blue Hawks never found any sort of offensive rhythm, which will happen from game to game but isn’t something a team wants to see week in and week out throughout a season.
Defensively, they led the league in pass defense much of the season and finished second. But, a handful of players made a point that the statistic could be a little deflated by comparison since most teams didn’t even have to pass on DSU to beat them since its offense was so unproductive.
The Blue Hawks were outscored an average of 33.5 to 9.5 points per game, both of which ranked last in the Frontier.
DSU ranked at the bottom of the league in 12 other categories: total offense (232.9 yards per game), rushing (115.4 ypg), passing (117.5 ypg), rushing defense (219 ypg), pass percentage (41 percent) pass efficiency (80), first downs (157 or 14.3 per game), sacks (14), sacks allowed (40), third-down conversion rate (28.4 percent), opponent fourth-down conversion rate (72.7 percent) and punting (33.6 yards per punt).
They were, however, disciplined. DSU only had 43 penalties this season, by far the fewest in the league.
So what has to change if DSU wants to compete with the likes of Carroll College and Frontier programs on the rise such as Southern Oregon — which heads to the NAIA playoffs with the top-ranked passing offense and scoring team in the country — and Montana Tech, which head coach Chuck Morrell has turned into a contender in just his second year?
It begins on the recruiting trail.
DSU needs to get athletes. It’s easier said than done, but it’s not a problem historically associated with the program. The Blue Hawks have had many years with teams that could have competed in this year’s Frontier just fine, if not won the whole thing.
If the Blue Hawks want to keep running the football, they’re going to need at least three tailbacks capable of gaining 100 yards every week and an offensive line for them to get behind.
DSU has now gone seven consecutive seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher — something that shouldn’t happen in an offense that runs the ball on most first and second downs.
Defensively, players who can defend against the pass now must be top-of-thelist recruits.
The Frontier is a passing league in every sense. While teams like Carroll College and Montana Tech still run the ball well, passing offenses aren’t going away anytime soon.
While we’re on the subject of passing, DSU must not only find quarterbacks capable of slinging the ball in the Frontier, but also be able to put them in situations where they can succeed.
A total system overhaul isn’t going to happen as long as Biesiot is at the helm, but a little offensive expansion wouldn’t hurt.
It starts with implementing some form of shotgun or pistol offense.
The Blue Hawks were the only team in the Frontier which had their quarterbacks take every snap at the line of scrimmage. They paid for it by allowing a Frontier-worst 40 sacks despite having mobile quarterbacks in Dave Velasquez, a senior starter who was injured five games into the season, speedy sophomore backup Matt Harkless and athletic freshman Thad Lane. Though the trio combined to complete just 41 percent of their passes, all were at their best when they had time to make plays with their feet.
There’s a reason why many of the most productive and successful teams at all levels of college football, including the Frontier, don’t always make their quarterbacks drop back to pass: it not only gives quarterbacks more time to make decisions, it better allows athletic signal-callers to make plays with their feet.
This offseason must be a productive one for the Blue Hawks, both on the recruiting trail, in the weight room and on the field in spring ball.
It’s not crazy to think a turnaround can’t happen. In 2007, after DSU finished 3-7, it responded with three consecutive DAC titles and NAIA playoff appearances. Climbing to the top of the Frontier will be undoubtedly more difficult, but isn’t out of the question.
Thanks to four decades of Biesiot led winning teams, DSU’s tradition is among the best in small college football. It plays in arguably the best stadium in the NAIA. Despite scholarship shortcomings compared to other Frontier schools, getting players to become Blue Hawks should not be that difficult.
It would be unbearable to watch a couple more losing seasons tarnish DSU’s winning tradition and Biesiot’s outstanding coaching legacy.
Now is the opportunity to preserve both and DSU must seize it any way that it can.