Story and photo courtesy of Northwest Missouri State Athletics
Jordan Simmons could only stand and watch from the Northwest Missouri State sideline, his broken left arm in a brace.
Teammate James Franklin would join him a little later, taking a helmet to the back on the first play from scrimmage, retreating to the locker room and reappearing on crutches.
Minus their best all-purpose back and their leading rusher, the Bearcats not only didn’t break Saturday. They thrived. Onetime walk-on Billy Creason stepped in with the second 100-yard rushing game of his career, Trevor Adams threw for two touchdowns and Northwest’s defense kept the nation’s fifth-best rushing attack out of the end zone in a 35-0 win in the first round of the NCAA’s Division II playoffs.
“It was,” Adams said, “a really good job of guys stepping up and taking care of business.”
The Bearcats (10-2) are part of the playoffs for the ninth time in as many years, the longest current streak in Division II, and now have reached the second round a ninth consecutive time. That’s the second-longest streak in D-II history; Grand Valley State made it at least that far in 10 consecutive years from 2001-10 – the first three under Brian Kelly, who went on to coach at Central Michigan, then at Cincinnati and now is the architect of Notre Dame’s perfect season.
Northwest will hit the road next Saturday to unbeaten Minnesota State Mankato, the top-seeded team in the NCAA’s Super Region 3. Kickoff is slated for noon in Mankato, Minn.
“I love coaching a game like that. Our kids love playing games like that,” Northwest coach Adam Dorrel said of the matchup. “We have absolutely nothing to lose … and we’re going to approach the game like that, and we’re going to play like that on Saturday.”
He said indications from Northwest’s medical personnel are that both Simmons and Franklin, who’s injury wasn’t specified, should be able to play at Mankato, though Simmons’ forearm break required the insertion of six screws during his Wednesday surgery. He was hurt during practice a day earlier.
Franklin, who’d run for 12 TDs and turned in the Bearcats’ only 100-yard performance prior to postseason, picked up 11 yards on his only carry against Harding. He stayed in the game for one more play – a pass incompletion thrown his way – and then pulled himself from the lineup.
It was a tough afternoon in Bearcat Stadium for running backs all-around. Harding lost its first-string fullback, Romo Westbrook, to an ankle injury on the Bisons' first play from scrimmage and second-stringer D'Nico Jackson-Best to another ankle injury a little before halftime. That forced the move of Bisons quarterback Kelvin Martin, a former backup fullback, to fullback in the second half.
Their triple-option Flexbone picked up 304 yards on the ground, the most the Bearcats have allowed this season, but managed only a little more than four yards a carry and 126 of those yards in the second half. Their passing game, meanwhile, netted minus-four yards and surrendered a couple of interceptions.
“The best team won today,” Harding coach Ronnie Huckeba said, but added in respect to the injuries, “I think we’re closer than that score indicated.”
Northwest had the depth to deal with its losses. And it had the diversification.
Creason ran for 34 of the 70 yards that the Bearcats covered on their opening possession, including a final, fourth-and-goal dive for a touchdown that gave them a quick and important lead. Adams’ 14-yard scoring pass to John Hinchey made it 14-0 early in the second quarter. And another fill-in running back, junior Kohlman Adema-Schulte rumbled six yards off tackle just before halftime for his first TD of the season and the second of his career.
Creason finished with 113 yards rushing, becoming the first back to crack 100 against Harding this season. The Bisons (9-2) had allowed teams an average of just a little more than 88 yards in their previous 10 games.
Adema-Schulte added 22 rushing yards.
“I think they expected to play a little bit today but not as much as they did, and they played really, really well,” Dorrel said. “Anytime you can do that, I think it’s just special. I think it says a lot about the character of the kid.”
Simmons’ injury earlier in the week had put Creason, in particular, on notice. The fifth-year junior from Grain Valley, Mo., was Northwest’s third-leading rusher as a freshman walk-on but he’d been slowed by injuries the past two seasons.
He has played in all 12 games this season, and has rushed for 377 yards.
“I was pretty nervous because I haven’t gotten that much PT (playing time) in a while at running back,” Creason said. “…But once I got settled down, I got really comfortable. And it was awesome.”
It was more of a struggle for Harding’s stricken offense – a lot of it because of the Northwest defense, some of it the Bisons’ own doing.
They threatened to immediately answer Creason’s early touchdown, driving 72 yards to the Northwest 6, but Martin – still at quarterback – fumbled the ball away. A failed fake field goal in the second quarter lost three yards. An illegal formation penalty wiped out a 55-yard TD run near the end of the half.
Behind sophomore backup quarterback Keenan Kellett, the Bisons reached the Northwest 32 in the fourth quarter. But a personal foul penalty set them back, and a gadget-play pass by running back Donatella Luckett was intercepted by the Bearcats’ Brandon Dixon.
Nate DeJong intercepted Kellett just two minutes later, the senior safety’s seventh pick in eight games, setting up 26-yard pass from Adams to Tyler Shaw that made it 28-0.
Backup quarterback Brady Bolles got Northwest Missouri State’s final score on a four-yard run with a little less than three minutes left, capping an eight-play, 63-yard drive.
Adams and Shaw also were instrumental in covering for the missing running backs, connecting on five passes for 24, 19, 35, 15 and 26 yards. Adams finished 17-for-25 for 212 yards and the two TDs. Team-wide, it was an impressive performance of an unsettling week – a one-point, MIAA-deciding loss to arch rival Missouri Western the previous Saturday, then Simmons’ broken arm on the practice field.
“We’ve got great kids. We’ve got a lot of character kids. And anytime you’ve got high-character kids, they always put a lot of confidence in you that they’re going to come through for you,” Dorrel said. “We talk about stuff like that in our program year-round, about the next man up and you never know when your opportunity is going to arise to be a starter.”
Beyond that, he pointed out, “our philosophy is we tend to play a lot more people early in the season than other programs do for a situation like that. We weren’t putting Billy in there with no playing time, meaningful playing time. We weren’t putting Kohlman in there (like that). Those guys had played at Arrowhead (vs. Pittsburg State). They’d played against Washburn. They played against Western. They’d played in big games.”
They now have at least one more.
The Bearcats, seeded fourth of the six Region 3 teams that reached the playoffs, are going after their ninth quarterfinal berth in nine years. That would make a little history, tying the longest such streak ever in Division II (Grand Valley State from 2001-09). And it would be the second longest streak in any NCAA division, from I-AA through Division III.
Mount Union has piled up 20 straight quarterfinal appearances dating to 1992, and has reached at least the semifinals in each of the past 17 years. The Purple Raiders, who routed Christopher Newport University 72-14 Saturday, take an 11-0 record D-III’s second round vs. Johns Hopkins next weekend.