KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After last weekend’s resounding 41-17 win over BR-38 Central Missouri in the Fall Classic at Arrowhead Stadium last Saturday, there is little doubt that BR-1 Northwest Missouri is the favorite to repeat as D2 Football national champions.
Sure, a lot can happen between now and Dec. 19, when the national championship game kicks off inside Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. But, with a 20-game win streak, there might not be a team capable of stopping the Bearcats.
Here are eight takeaways from the Bearcats’ win, and the top reasons NWMSU will repeat as D2 Football Champions.
SLOW START FOR BEARCATS
It wasn’t the prettiest first half performance for Northwest against their arch rivals from Warrensburg.
NWMSU (5-0) struck first with 3:58 left in the first quarter on a Phil Jackson one-yard touchdown run, only to see the Mules answer with a Garrett Fugate to Jaylen Zachary 14-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 48 seconds left in the frame.
“Early in the first half, they hit us with some deep balls over the top,” said Northwest defensive end Collin Bevins. “They were running the ball really well. They were doing some different schemes inside on us on the defensive line. We didn’t make some adjustments with that.”
After the teams traded touchdown passes midway through the second quarter, Kyle Zimmerman gave the Bearcats the lead for good with a four-yard touchdown pass to Clayton Wilson with 39 seconds left in the half.
“I told them going up two scores going in there was huge and if we could come out in the third quarter and get another score on there, I thought it was going to be tough for them,” Dorrell said. “It was great to take that momentum into halftime.”
The teams would trade punts to start the second half, then the Bearcats struck again with a Cameron Wilcox 34-yard touchdown run to make it a 28-14 lead. It was on the ensuing Central Missouri (3-2) drive that the game tilted dramatically.
The Mules started the drive at the Northwest 43 after a Marquel McNac 50-yard kick return. Fugate drove UCM into the red zone to set up a first-and-10 from the Northwest 13. After a delay of game penalty and an incompletion, Jack Young picked Fugate off to thwart the drive.
“He made a great play on the ball,” Zimmerman said of Young’s pick, just the fourth of the season for the Bearcats. “We talk about getting turnovers and the defense got us one. It was a huge play for us.”
It was a swing which Northwest turned into a 12-play, 94-yard drive, capped off by a Jackson six-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter to give the Bearcats a 35-14 lead, effectively icing the game.
“We were about ready to answer a score, we have a penalty down there, a missed assignment, then turn the ball over,” UCM head coach Jim Svoboda said. “They get a penalty, they’re backed up, they’re [94 yards] out and they proceed to drive down the field and score a touchdown. It was a pretty big swing right there.”
PICK YOUR POISON ON OFFENSE
Cameron Wilcox (#7) and his Northwest Missouri teammates celebrate a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 42-17 win over Central Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. on Oct. 1, 2016. (Creighton Rabs/HERO Sports)
It didn’t matter which offensive weapon Northwest threw at the Mules. Jackson and Wilcox, the dynamic duo from DuPage County, Ill. (Jackson is from Carol Stream, while Wilcox hails from Naperville), combined to average 6.6 yards per carry (24 carries, 158 yards between the two).
“Being able to line up and get the run game going, that opens up everything,” Jackson said. “Just to be able to do that is one of a kind for us.”
It was Zimmerman spreading the ball around, going 24-of-33 for 275 yards as 10 different Bearcats caught at least one pass. And, a pair of six-minute scoring drives in the fourth quarter wore the Mules out down the stretch.
“We couldn’t slow them down,” Svoboda said. “We didn’t have the ball very much in the second half because they had those torturous long, numerous play drives that they kept converting. We couldn’t get them off the field.”
The contrasting styles of Jackson and Wilcox made for a very long night on the Mules sideline.
“Phil’s downhill, the safety sees him and he gathers himself,” Dorrell said. “Cam’s downhill, the safety’s not sure what he’s going to do. It’s a really good combination. And the X-Factor is when you mix [Jordan] Grove in there, it’s dangerous.”
DEPTH IN THE TRENCHES …
The Bearcats threw a three tight end set at times, adding more depth in the trenches and helping an offensive line that’s been banged up as of late.
“When you can line up with three tight ends like that and knock people around a little bit, it’s a great feeling as a coach because it signifies that you’ve got tough kids and it opens your playbook up when you’re able to do that,” Dorrell said.
Zimmerman benefited from that scheme as the Bearcats yielded just two tackles for loss and no sacks on 73 offensive plays.
“The offensive line opened up did great opening up holes,” Zimmerman said. “Phil ran hard, Cameron came in and had some good runs.”
The irony is that tight ends don’t exactly grow on trees out in Northwest’s territory.
“Believe it or not, it’s become very difficult to recruit tight ends in the Midwest,” Dorrell said. “There’s just not that many people using them anymore. We’ve converted some fullbacks to tight end. If you go back into the mid-2000s, we were always really good at doing that. It was something as a coaching staff we’ve really focused on these past couple years, and I thought they played well tonight.”
“When they lined up with two tight ends, they ran power at us,” Svoboda said. “We had trouble stopping that too.”
… DESPITE THE INJURY BUG
As for those injuries, with the way the Bearcats dominated on offense, you wouldn’t have known that Dorrell was virtually piecing together a front-five on the fly.
“We’ve got a lot of injuries on the offensive line,” Dorrell said. “We’re shuffling guys in and out. The thing I’m proud of, we’ve got guys like (right guard) Kyle Meyer – a fifth-year player who’s hardly played in his career here – he’s started the last two weeks and he’s played really well. I’m proud of him for staying committed to the process to this university and he’s reaping the rewards.”
Senior center Chase Sherman is the only Bearcat lineman to start all five games at the same position as Northwest brought out their fifth different starting offensive line of the season. Junior Landon Kubicek, who started two games at left tackle, made his second career start at right tackle against UCM.
“It’s was just kind of plug and play tonight,” Dorrell said. “We were rotating guys and I’m just really proud of them. They may not be the most talented group but they’re very, very tough and a mentally tough group.”
You could’ve fooled most observers, who simply saw Northwest, well, that ‘Northwest-brand’ of football which led them to two of the last three national championships.
The biggest challenge for Northwest was slowing down the Mules’ three-man running back by committee: McNac, Xavier Washpun and Gabe Vandiver.
“All three of them are pretty fast, they’re all pretty shifty,” Bevins said. “A lot of them like to run downhill, get their shoulders square and run people over. Fugate is really dangerous with the ball, too. Preparing for him is tough.”
Mission accomplished, as the Bearcats held UCM to 84 net rushing yards on 30 carries. And, despite allowing Fugate to throw for 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 12-of-18 passing in the first half, the Bearcats went into lockdown mode in the second half, holding the Mules to 87 yards of total offense in the second half.
“Once we put them into predictable passing situations, we went out there; our defensive line hounded them and our linebackers and defensive backs covered down strong and it all worked out. We locked them up on the outside a lot better. They didn’t hit as many deep balls on us.”
Despite the gaudy numbers, including six tackles for loss, the Bearcats defense didn’t sack Fugate once.
“We didn’t do a very good job of [putting pressure on Fugate] tonight,” Bevins said. “I feel like it could’ve been a lot better.”
HOME COOKING AT ARROWHEAD
It had been three years since the Bearcats played at the home of the Kansas City Chiefs. After a two-year hiatus, the Fall Classic made a triumphant return to Arrowhead.
“About 75 percent of our roster hadn’t played at Arrowhead before,” Dorrell said. “That fact that we were able to come do this, win or lose, was going to be a memory of a lifetime for our student-athletes.”
Northwest is now 10-3 all-time at the big red house in the shadows of I-70 off the Blue Ridge Cutoff. With nearly two dozen Bearcats hailing from the Kansas City metro area, including Zimmerman, an Overland Park, Kan. native, the Fall Classic took on extra meaning, especially in front of a crowd of 15,349, most of them glad in green and white and cheering for the Bearcats.
“It’s definitely special,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a great venue for a college football game. I think everybody who played in this game can testify to that.”
It was a view shared across the field by the Mules.
“We were grateful for the opportunity” to play at Arrowhead, Svoboda said. “We have many Kanas City area kids on the roster. It was a special thing for them, but right now, it probably doesn’t feel that special.”
For Central Missouri, coming of a second-straight loss, the focus is now on BR-162 Nebraska-Kearney, a team mired in a 16-game losing streak, the second longest in D2 football. But, don’t expect the Mules to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
“My feeling is that they’re going to come out focused this week,” Svoboda said. “They’re going to be optimistic just like the coaches are. We’re all in this thing together. They’re the same kids we won three games with to start the season. We have to figure out as coaches how we can make them better.”
As for the Bearcats, a trip to Edmond awaits as they take on BR-66 Central Oklahoma. Don’t think for one second that Dorrell and his players are looking past the Bronchos.
“We’ve felt them first hand,” Dorrell said. “That’s a big physical football team.”
And, as any Bearcat fan can tell you, there are no easy games in the MIAA, even though Dorrell’s squad has made it look fairly easy over the past four years.
“We’ve got a lot of quality opponents left on our schedule. If you can make the playoffs, if you’re lucky enough to do that, I certainly think it helps you out.”
And, after their latest dominating performance, and the prospect of a virtual home game in the national championship game in Kansas City, Kan. on the horizon, it’s not so much luck that’s powering the Northwest Missouri Bearcats … they’re just that good.