KANSAS CITY, Kan. – A D2 Football Championship record crowd of 16,181 inside Sporting Park saw BR-1 Northwest Missouri State make history of their own in a dominating 34-7 win over BR-2 Shepherd to win their fifth national championship in program history, tying Northern Colorado for the most D2 football championships since the NCAA adopted the three division format in 1973.
“Anytime your kids go out and execute in a game like this is very rewarding because it’s not easy to do,” said Northwest head coach Adam Dorrell. “When you get on a national stage and get in an environment like that, it can be very challenging.”
Northwest’s defense recorded 10 sacks of Shepherd quarterback Jeff Ziemba, whose status leading up to kickoff was unknown after his shoulder injury last week against Grand Valley State.
“As long as Jeff was able to go, he’s our guy,” said head coach Monte Cater. “He took a tremendous amount of punishment and it’s a wonder he was able to finish.”
The Northwest defense held Shepherd to 97 yards of total offense, including a net negative-39 yards on the ground. The Bearcats forced the Rams into nine punts, including six three-and-outs and a 3-for-12 mark on third down conversions.
“They didn’t have to blitz a lot because their front was very good and that’s been a tough place for us all year,” Cater said. “We had a lot of trouble blocking them and it just very difficult.”
The tone was set on the opening snap, when Ziemba mishandled a bad snap from center. Cass Weitl recovered the fumble on the Shepherd 5 yard line.
The Bearcats took advantage two plays later when Jordan Grove found open space on the left side of the pocket and punched it in from five yards out to give Northwest a 7-0 lead just 47 seconds into the game. Grove’s touchdown was the fastest non-kickoff return score in a D2 Football Championship game since Central Michigan’s Dick Dunham scored on a 68 yard rush 20 seconds into the 1974 title game.
Following a three-and-out by Shepherd, the Rams defense forced a turnover of their own.
James King forced Cameron Wilcox to fumble at the Shepherd 47; Keon Robinson recovered the fumble, but the Rams couldn’t capitalize as they would go three-and-out fueled in part by back-to-back Bearcat sacks.
The score remained 7-0 until midway through the second quarter when Brady Bolles completed a 74 yard pass to Grove along the far sideline to set up a first-and-goal from the Shepherd 6.
“He’s been a huge player for us all year,” Bolles said of Grove, who finished with five catches for 104 yards. “I told him if he gets through clean that would be a big play and sure enough he did.”
Bolles connected on a 1 yard touchdown pass to Shane Williams three plays later to make it 14-0 Northwest.
Simon Mathiesen would add a 30 yard field goal with 38 seconds left in the half to give Northwest a 17-0 lead. The field goal capped a 12 play, 70 yard drive.
Shepherd appeared to have some momentum in the closing seconds of the first half after C.J. Davis returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards into Northwest territory. Northwest cornerback Bryce Enyard had other plans, however, as he picked off Ziemba and cashed in the pick six to make it 24-0 Northwest.
“Anytime we can put points on the board without our defense being out there is always good for me and the offense,” Bolles said. “But that was big because you could kind of shut the door, not just for them to not get three points, but to get the pick-six and go down and score seven right before the half.”
The Bearcats couldn’t take advantage on their opening drive of the second half, as Mathiesen’s 39 yard field goal sailed wide left. Shepherd, however, caught a big break when Shawn Bane misplayed a punt and DeJuan Neal recovered for the Rams at the Northwest 32.
Ziemba made Northwest pay two plays later when he fired a 21 yard strike to Billy Brown, who out-jumped the defender in the back of the endzone for Shepherd’s lone score of the game to make it 24-7 with 9:49 left in the third.
The Bearcats looked to add as they advanced to the Shepherd 1 yard line, thanks in part to a Grove pass to Dre Washington. A third down holding penalty effectively stalled the drive as Northwest was forced to settle for a 22 yard Mathiesen field goal to make it 27-7.
Grove would add an “insurance” touchdown on a one yard run with 8:47 left and give Northwest a 34-7 lead.
Bolles, who set the all-time record for career passing attempts (1,011) and leaves Maryville as the all-time leader in total offensive yards, finished his collegiate career with 233 yards and a touchdown on 20-of-27 passing. Tailback Phil Jackson led the Bearcats with 109 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Shepherd senior tailback Allen Cross ran for 27 yards on 11 carries in his final college football game.
We will have more notes, quotes and stories from Kansas City up tomorrow as we wrap up our coverage of the 2015 D2 Football Championship.