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Fertile-Beltrami football ready for matchup of shutdown defense against Mountain Iron-Buhl's high-scoring offense

Fertile-Beltrami has four shutouts this season, while Mountain Iron-Buhl has scored more than 70 points four times.

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Fertile-Beltrami's Everett Balstad slips a tackle by NCE-UH's Soren Bakke in the first half of their playoff game Thursday at the Fargodome. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The defense for the Fertile-Beltrami football team has given up less than a touchdown per game this season. The Falcons have four shutouts and the most an opponent has scored in a game is 20.

The Mountain Iron-Buhl offense has scored 57 points per game this season. The Rangers have scored more than 70 four times and the lowest offensive output all season is 28 points.

Something will have to give Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Minnesota 9-man playoffs. The two teams meet at 6 p.m. at Grand Rapids High School.

"We've talked about trying to limit their offense on the field," Fertile-Beltrami coach Brian Nelson said. "Try to establish our run game and our play-action pass, which we've been good with that, too. We have to try contain the quarterback. They have lots of trick plays. It's a no-huddle offense. Our kids will have to be lined up and ready to go. Hopefully, we're ready to line up to their different formations and take away their favorites from those formations."

Mountain Iron-Buhl quarterback Asher Zubich, the head coach's son, has thrown for 2,300 yards with 32 touchdowns to three interceptions. He's also ran for 1,300 yards.

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The no-huddle offense will be unique for the stout Falcons defense, which is led by Tyler Stuhaug (71 tackles), Everett Balstad (50 tackles), Derek Sorenson (49 tackles) and Tucker Bolstad (38 tackles).

"I think a lot of us work really hard and have different specialties," said Balstad, also a standout runner for the Falcons. "It helps to have depth, too, to have people come in. It seems to work out well."

Expectations were high for the Falcons entering the season, coming off a pandemic-altered season a year ago in which Fertile-Beltrami finished 5-1 and lost only one senior.

"They've rose up to the occasion and handled the pressure pretty well," Nelson said.

The Falcons have been to the state tournament five times -- 1981, 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2006. This will be the first season the Falcons will go as a 9-man program. Fertile-Beltrami has classified as a 9-man program in 2007 but had opted up into the higher classification up until a few years ago.

"It means a lot to us," Balstad said. "Ever since we were younger, we'd say we're going to make it to state. We've been working hard in the summers to be the best players we can be. I think that helped us. It's a big things for our school, and we have a lot of support from our fans."

Balstad, a 6-foot-1 senior, paces the offense. He has 166 carries for 1,451 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's also the team's top receiving target with 21 catches for 426 yards and seven touchdowns.

Quarterback Rylin Petry is 47-for-81 for 705 yards and 12 touchdowns this year with just one interception.

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"(Balstad) is a dynamic player," Nelson said. "As a sophomore, he played linebacker and moved to corner as a junior. He's back to linebacker this year and has improved every game. Offensively, he's been a leader down the stretch there and we expect big things from him (Thursday)."

Joining Balstad as offensive weapons are Levi Qualley (741 rushing yards, nine touchdowns), Sorenson (357 rushing yards), Isaiah Wright (405 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and Ryan Van Den Einde (10 catches for 109 yards, two touchdowns).

"My offensive line has helped me a lot," Balstad said. "They create a lot of good holes. I've been running hard with my head down and looking for ways to cut through a defense."

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Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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