It all comes down to this. No. 1 Bismarck High hosts No. 2 Minot High at 7 tonight for the West Region title and a top seed in the Class AAA football playoffs.
The last time the Magicians (8-0 overall, 5-0 region) beat the Demons (8-0, 5-0) was in the 2007 regular season. BHS won a semifinal playoff game over MHS that season and the five meetings since.
The Magicians are coming off a 14-10 upset of then-No. 2 Century, the first team they faced with considerable size along both lines. The Demons present yet another size advantage against technically sound MHS fronts.
Minot High School sophomore Ben Bolinske rolls out and looks to pass during the Magicians’ win against Century on Saturday at Duane Carlson Stadium. Second-ranked MHS plays at No. 1 Bismarck High at 7 tonight.
"We need to stop the run," MHS coach Barry Holmen said. "They have a great tailback and a great offensive line. It will be hard to stop their running attack and teams that have to bring that extra body into the box really end up in a pickle defending the pass because now it's a 1-on-1 situation a lot."
BHS senior running back Ricardo Galindo is one of the top playmakers in the state and posted a staggering 410 yards in a win over Fargo South earlier this season. Keeping Galindo off the field is key and that means the MHS offensive line needs to be at its best to sustain long drives and control time of possession.
"With Bismarck teams, they really play at a higher speed than anybody else in the state," MHS senior left guard Joey Rensvold said. "That's what's really given them a lot of success in the past and it just took us a little bit to get up with that speed (against Century) and the same thing's gonna happen with Bismarck High. Hopefully we can get to that speed a little bit faster this time."
The Magicians still need to minimize false start and procedure penalties, but
Holmen was pleased with how his big guys handled Century's defensive line and improved throughout the game.
"From the sideline it looked like we were absolutely being whooped up front," Holmen said, "but after watching film, really it was multiple times a running play could've been a successful play if one person did a better job on their assignment. It was a case of not executing as a unit. There were plenty of good things going on up front, but it seems like there was a breakdown too many times. It has to mesh."
MHS had a four-game road stretch earlier in the season, but having the Bismarck schools back-to-back at the end of the schedule proved vital for sophomore quarterback Ben Bolinske and an inexperienced line in front of him.
"It has been a great thing for us to have some games to work with Ben and let him mature as our offensive leader," Holmen said. "You say he's a sophomore, well he's almost got a full season under his belt. So he's closer to a junior in terms of experience level now."
Linemen have had to grow up quickly too. Sophomore right tackle Kyle Routledge earned his first start in week five against Grand Forks Red River. Playing Century was a necessary eye-opener with another big opponent and the playoffs looming.
"They were probably the best line we've faced all year," Routledge said. "They were big up front, their two ends were pretty fast on the edge for pass rushing, but towards the end they kind of petered out and got tired.
"We need to improve on pass protection and picking up linebackers because (BHS is) gonna come a lot faster than Century did, (with) more blitzing. So we just gotta fill in the holes and make sure we pick up 'backers."
BHS coach Mark Gibson picked Minot as the region favorite before the season and he's only grown more impressed with the Magicians' defense.
"We're still trying to figure out things defensively," Gibson said. "Not sure if we're in the same category with them and that's a big deal. They pursue the ball really well and are very sound, very aggressive and they don't ever give up big plays."
The Demons will still look for the big gains - starting with Galindo.
"Ricky's just a tough runner," Gibson said. "He's a kid that as the game progresses he's just gonna run harder. He has one motor and that's 100 miles per hour every time he touches the ball."