Very few teams in the MIAA had much success covering Pittsburg State's John Brown last year and Northwest Missouri State was chief among those that got torched by him.
In two games against the Bearcats, Brown averaged seven catches for 178 yards and scored five touchdowns, mostly of the downfield variety.
Brown ignited Pittsburg State's 38-35 comeback win at Arrowhead with a 49-yard touchdown reception and his 56-yard reception on a pass from wide receiver Andrew Castaneda tied the game at 28 in the fourth quarter.
In the playoff rematch, Brown was even more of a nuisance, catching three second half touchdowns to fuel a 41-16 win.
"The reverse pass they hit us with was a trick play and they made it work," said Northwest Missouri State defensive coordinator Richard Wright. "The others, he went up and caught a ball and you got to give credit to him. A good ball is thrown in man coverage in the right spot, and if he goes up and it gets, you got to take your hat off. The kid and the quarterback made a play."
Brown's success against Northwest last year, at least in part, dictated the Bearcats off-season shopping list.
Northwest realized it had to find a better set of cover corners that could match up with an elite receiver like Brown over the next two seasons.
In twin brothers Brandon and Brian Dixon, who have combined for six interceptions in the first six games, the Bearcats believe they have that now.
Their presence in Northwest's secondary instills confidence that the No. 7 Bearcats (5-1, 4-1) can at least contain Brown during Saturday's Fall Classic XI at Arrowhead Stadium.
"I think they make a big difference in being able to cover him," said Wright. "They're good man-cover guys. They got speed. They got size. I at least think we match up with him. John is a great football player and a special receiver. He's going to make plays. That's going to happen, but I have the utmost confidence in those two kids to go and execute at a very high level on Saturday."
For Brandon, who along with his brother transferred from Joliet (Ill.) Community College, this will actually be his second time lining up on the same field as Brown.
Both grew up in the Miami area and played against each other in a high school all-star game three years ago. Brandon says he never had the opportunity to guard Brown because he always lined up in the slot.
In this case, Brandon will almost assuredly get his shot to cover Brown, although Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel indicated he won't be on him the whole game.
Page 2 of 3 - "They move him around all over the place," said Dorrel. "He lines up in the backfield. He lines up in the slot at No. 1. I know that's a common theme that's talked about is matchups. It's just when they're doing that much with a kid and all their personnel groupings, it's really hard to just match up one guy on him. If you do that then you really have to change a lot of your coverage. You can do it on third and medium and third and long, but on first and 10 that's hard."
Brandon says he welcomes the challenge of guarding Brown and plans on using his superior size in one-on-one situations to prevent him from getting his normal release off the line of scrimmage.
Both Brandon and Brian are 6-0, 195 pounds, while Brown stands just 5-11, 171 pounds.
"I feel like I can be physical with him like man-press on the line," said Brandon Dixon. "I don't think after watching him nobody came up and pressed him like man-press him. They always guarded him back. I'm going to come up and press him. I'm going to man-jam, do what I've been doing the last six weeks."
Brandon and Brian should have help over the top in most situations with the Bearcats very much fearful of giving up the big play.
Last year, four of Brown's five touchdown catches went for more than 40 yards, with a long of 78.
"We're going to be doing some different things to take care of that," said Northwest Missouri State safety Clarke Snodgrass. "We're not going to game plan especially against him, but we're going to be doing some different things as a secondary that helps us be a little more disciplined and stay over the top."
Along with an emphasis on keeping Brown in front of them, Dorrel says it's important that the Bearcats are physical with him after the catch.
"He's going to get his touches and his catches," said Dorrel. "The key is when he gets the football, guys need to wrap up and the other three guys just need to hit him really hard."
With new starting quarterback Anthony Abenoja delivering the ball to him this year, Brown has picked up where he left off as a sophomore, ranking first in the MIAA in receiving yards per game (108.6) and fourth in receptions per game (6.2).
He'll go up against a new and improved Bearcat secondary, that at least partially because of the Dixon's, has performed at a very high level this year.
Northwest has the No. 2 pass defense in the MIAA and is allowing less than 200 yards per game.
The Bearcats have given up only one pass play of more than 28 yards all season and no receiver or tight end has more than 74 yards against them.
Page 3 of 3 - Northwest has more interceptions at this point (11) than touchdown passes allowed (7).
A starter since day one, Brandon Dixon nabbed his team-leading fourth interception of the year Saturday at Central Oklahoma. Brian Dixon, whose started the past two games, collected his second later on.
"I think the two kids we have now are playing at a pretty high level," said Wright. "If they stay disciplined with their eyes and do their job, then I think they're going to do some good things for us Saturday."