Story and photo courtesy of Northwest Missouri State Athletics
JOPLIN, Mo. – With the NCAA’s first regional rankings due in a couple of days and a Division II playoff race beginning to warm, this was no time for a letdown.
And no way was it the place.
Northwest Missouri State hasn’t lost in Missouri Southern’s Fred Hughes Stadium – hasn’t fallen to the Lions anywhere – since 1994, tying the longest chokehold it has put on any Mid-America Athletic Association rival. Saturday was more of the same. The Bearcats got a precisioned passing performance from quarterback Trevor Adams and three rushing touchdowns from James Franklin, put the triple-option-running Lions in an early 14-point hole and rolled to a 38-14 victory.
They’ve won the last six games in the two schools’ series by an average of more than 31 points.
There was no visible hangover from an emotional win a week earlier over then-unbeaten and top-ranked Pittsburg State. While Adams and the offense scored on four of their first five possessions, the defense bent a little against Southern’s triple option – allowing a season-high 253 yards on the ground – but harassed Lions quarterback Kellen Cox into an 0-for-11 passing day, intercepting him twice.
“When they did try to throw, our D-line was in the backfield causing havoc,” said senior safety Nate DeJong, whose first-quarter interception set up the first Northwest score. “He was kind of running for his life.”
DeJong and the Bearcats (7-1 overall, 6-1 in the MIAA) continued their push for an eighth berth in the Division II playoffs in as many years.
They have little room for error in either the conference or the NCAA’s power-packed Super Region 3, which accounted for 11 of the top 25 teams in the coaches’ poll going into Saturday. Northwest travels next weekend to Washburn, then closes its regular season with games at home vs. Emporia State and Missouri Western.
Those three remaining opponents are a combined 22-2.
With much of the meat of his team’s schedule ahead, Northwest coach Adam Dorrel isn’t counting on a lofty initial ranking. “We’re not going to be in the top six,” he said. “. . . But the approach I think I’ll end up taking is: Don’t worry about it. If you do what you’re supposed to do, it’ll all work out in the end.
“I’ll just tell our team, ‘Guys, we’ve never not made the playoffs when we were supposed to.’ ”
Missouri Southern (5-3, 4-3) was coming off its own eye-opening victory, a 31-30 upset of Missouri Western in St. Joseph. But this one got away from the Lions – or rather was taken away – quickly.
Scouts from the NFL’s New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks were on hand to get a look at Southern’s two-time All-American tackle and NFL draft pick-in-waiting, Brandon Williams. What they got instead was an early eyeful of Adams who completed 19 of his first 23 passes for 226 yards and a TD– all before the end of the first half.
He finished 25-for-33 for 292 yards.
Southern’s Cox, a 5-10 senior converted from receiver this season, had a very different kind of afternoon. His very first pass was picked off by DeJong, setting the Bearcats up at their own 49-yard line. Less than three minutes later, Franklin ran it in from the 1 for a 7-0 lead.
The Bearcats then added a 12-play, 80-yard drive, Jordan Simmons finishing it with a two-yard TD run.
“Our offense did an awesome job of putting them in a hole early,” said junior defensive end Ricky Bailey.”An option team like that, they’re very time-dependent. They like to run time off the clock. But when they’re in the hole, they can’t do that.”
Southern ground out a touchdown drive late in the first and early in the second quarter, cutting the margin to 14-7. But Northwest Missouri answered with a 12-play, 76-yard drive, Adams hitting tight end Joel Gantz in the back of the end zone for a three-yard TD.
A 22-yard field goal by Todd Adolf made it 24-7 before halftime.
The Bearcats put together 76- and 62-yard touchdown drives in the second half, eating up time that Southern’s offense so desperately needed.
The Lions didn’t complete a pass until a little more than four minutes remained, and that was by freshman backup quarterback Jay McDowell. For a mere five yards. Their running game, while covering some ground, also suffered six fumbles – all recovered by Southern but setbacks nonetheless.
Northwest’s lead ballooned to 38-7 before Southern tacked on a meaningless touchdown with 2:57 left.
“The strength of this football team is our defense. To get where we want to get, those guys have got to play like they’ve played every week,” Dorrel said. “. . . (It was) a solid performance from them again. And I thought it was a gutsy performance.
His team is now three-quarters through a crucial four-week stretch on the road.
“One of the things we talk about,” Dorrel said, “is ‘let’s be perfect in October.’ I felt like if we could do that, we’d have a chance.
“I’m just so proud of our kids, the way they’ve gone the first three weeks. Now, we’ve got a tough, tough football game next week in Topeka.”