Beavers making progress

At one point in Minot State’s intrasquad scrimmage Saturday morning at Herb Parker Stadium, a handful of players got tangled up in a light scuffle. Just some pushing and shoving, nothing serious. It’s college football, it happens.

But that type of competitive vigor has been missing.

“In three years around the program, I’ve never seen that intensity,” one MSU athletics staff member said.

In the past three years, the Beavers have amassed just seven wins in 25 games – 2-8 in 2011, 3-8 in 2012 and 2-9 last year.

The newfound energy first-year coach Tyler Hughes has brought to the program is a welcome change.

“That comes with pride and confidence,” defensive coordinator Byron Thomas said. “As guys are more prideful and more confident with what they’re doing, the intensity is going to kick up a little bit. I like to call it swagger.

“Seeing it on both sides of the ball, it’s very, very, very encouraging.”

Thomas had plenty to be enthused about, particularly his run defense. Throughout the scrimmage, which closed the Beavers’ 10-day fall camp, his defense allowed 63 rushing yards on 31 carries. In the first half, primarily played by first- and second-string players, the total was 15 yards on 17 carries.

“We pride ourselves on stopping the run as a defense,” Thomas said. “Our guys rose to that occasion. They accept that challenge and they take tremendous pride in stopping the run. We just hope to continue to build off that.”

While addressing his team after the scrimmage, Hughes praised the way his defensive linemen shed blocks and his linebackers filled holes. It put his offense into many difficult third-down situations – 12 times facing third-and-8 or worse.

“The alternative of the defense playing the run so well was that we didn’t run the ball well offensively,” Hughes said. “That needs to improve dramatically.”

The offense did score twice on the ground, both on drives beginning by design with a first-and-goal from the 5.

On junior quarterback Jose Escobar’s first pass attempt in the public eye, he delivered a 60-yard touchdown strike.

He faked a handoff, rolled right and hit speedy freshman Cameron Wilson on a right-to-left post route.

“It was a playaction shot; we wanted to take it,” Hughes said. “Set his feet well and really laced it out there. It was a good, good snap for sure.”

Escobar, a transfer from Fullerton (Calif.) College, is one of three quarterbacks contending for the starting role. He completed 3 of 6 passes for 73 yards with no interceptions. He and redshirt sophomore Crosby Jensen played four drives each.

Jensen, a transfer from Snow College in Utah, was 5-of-9 passing for 79 yards with no interceptions. In his opening drive, he led the offense on a nine-play, 54-yard drive that stalled at the defense’s 41-yard line.

Junior Zac Cunha, the Beavers’ starter the past two years, played the first two drives before taking a backseat to the newcomers. The first-team offense made little progress against the defense, but did settle for a 20-yard field goal by sophomore Aaron LaDeaux on its second drive. Cunha converted 3 of 6 passes for 17 yards with no interceptions.

Hughes was pleased by the play of all five quarterbacks, with juniors Lucas Romanski and Brad Hunt seeing the field in the final two of 12 drives.

“They knew where they were supposed to go with the ball, what their reads were. They were very solid that way,” Hughes said. “It showed out there. None of them felt unprepared when they were on the field, and that’s a credit to them.”

The offense converted eight first downs (five in the first half) and 232 yards (171 first half). It missed two opportunities for long completions. Hughes pointed to the defensive secondary as the other particular area that needs improvement.

Overall, Hughes said he came away encouraged by the scrimmage. The energy and focus were there, and he’s confident that making a few adjustments will leave the Beavers prepared for their opener Sept. 6 at Sioux Falls.

“We didn’t have a deer-in-the-headlights type of look,” he said. “I knew they were ready to play. I knew that they were focused and they were paying attention all camp long.

“The mistakes that were made were because the guy on the other side of the ball was good, too. It wasn’t because they were not knowing what their assignments were. I like where we’re at right now.”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.