One of No. 7 Northwest Missouri State's stated objectives for the 2012 season was to return the MIAA championship trophy to Maryville where it belonged every year from 2006-2010.
Already with one conference defeat, Northwest's MIAA title hopes will either be resuscitated or greatly diminished based on the outcome of Saturday's 4 p.m. Fall Classic XI against No. 1 Pittsburg State at Arrowhead Stadium.
A win over the defending national and MIAA champion Gorillas (5-0, 4-0) would allow Northwest (5-1, 4-1) to control its own destiny with games still to come against the two other conference co-leaders Emporia State and Missouri Western at home.
A loss puts the Bearcats two games back of Pitt and the odds of over-taking them at that point would probably be insurmountable.
So if the Bearcats want to be MIAA champions, this game is pretty much a must-win.
"We expect to win every game," said Northwest Missouri State senior safety Clarke Snodgrass. "That's our mentality going in. It's not any different for us. That just gives us more incentive to go out there and win."
Besides the MIAA title ramifications of this game, it's also a chance for Northwest to exact some revenge.
After eight straight wins over the Gorillas, Northwest lost both meetings to them last year, once at Arrrowhead and again in the Division II quarterfinals.
Pitt rallied from a 22-point halftime deficit to win last year's Fall Classic 38-35, ending Northwest's MIAA record conference win streak at 49 games.
In the playoff game, Northwest scored the first 10 points and was tied with Pitt at the half before the Gorillas scored three straight second half touchdowns on passes to John Brown to pull away with a 41-16 win.
This loss ended Northwest's season at 11-3 and gave them their earliest playoff exit since 2004.
Since leaving the Jungle that day, Northwest has been awaiting its next opportunity to get another crack at Pitt.
Now, it’s here.
"It's hard not to look past teams," said Snodgrass. "You're starting to see some of the hype on Facebook and Twitter and even in the paper. People are hanging up posters about pre-game stuff. We try to take it week by week. We're going to be ready to go this week. Everyone has already been hooting and hollering in weights and all that kind of stuff."
Added Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel, "none of us have slept much in the last 72 hours."
Picked to finish 1-2 in the MIAA, Pitt and Northwest are meeting for the 11th time as top 10 teams.
Many of the top players on both teams remain in place from last year, but both have new full-time starting quarterbacks and several new starters on defense.
Page 2 of 5 - Northwest's secondary has been largely revamped from last year, with junior college transfers Brandon and Brian Dixon providing a needed upgrade at corner.
Trevor Adams is now entrenched as Northwest's starting quarterback, and wide receiver Tyler Shaw has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 target.
These reasons and more provide Northwest confidence it is better equipped to beat Pitt this year.
"I feel like we're a better football team right now," said Dorrel. "That's from top to bottom. I feel like we're better on special teams then we were last year. I feel like defensively we're really good this year. Pitt averages 42-something points a game, so we're going to have be good. I would probably say just all around depth and our confidence level is better."
Since losing to Central Missouri 31-21 in week two, Northwest has run off four straight wins by an average of 46.3 points over four opponents—Fort Hays State, Nebraska-Kearney, Northeastern State and Central Oklahoma—with a combined record of 2-22.
The four-game stretch is reminiscent to the one Northwest put together leading into last year's game against Pittsburg State.
Northwest has been especially dominant the last two weeks, beating the two Oklahoma first-year MIAA schools by a combined score of 136-13.
"I don't mean anything bad to those teams we've beaten, but they weren't super college football teams," said Dorrel. "I'm not going to take anything away from our kids because we still had to go to Edmond. We still had to play in front of 300 people and we played, too. We were knocking people around and had fun doing it. It says a lot about our senior leadership. I just think you have to keep it in context who we've beaten the last two weeks. Both of their coaches would tell you they weren't happy with their performance."
While Northeastern or Central Oklahoma may not provide the best gauge, it is worth noting that those teams played Pittsburg State much closer than Northwest.
Pitt opened the season against Northeastern on the road and won 41-20. Two weeks later, they struggled to put away UCO in a 34-19 win at Carnie Smith Stadium.
What does it mean? Not much in Dorrel's mind.
"Northeastern was a new team into the league and Pitt didn't have any video on them," said Dorrel. "They didn't have any idea what they were going to do. Against Northeastern, Pitt stayed in a two-safety base defense. They didn't blitz anybody. That's the last time that happened. They're blitzing more than I've ever seen them blitz right now."
Pitt has been more impressive than Northwest against only one common opponent and that was Central Missouri. Tested for the first time all year last week, the Gorillas overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Mules 30-21.
Page 3 of 5 - Pitt is in the midst of a stretch of games against Central, Northwest and No. 4 Missouri Western that will determine the fate of its season as well.
Northwest's offense vs. Pitt's defense
The Gorillas and Northwest represent the league's two highest scoring teams and their defenses have given up the least amount of yards per game.
Northwest averages a league-high 45.8 points per game, ranks third in rush offense with 201.2 yards per game and fifth in pass offense with 262.3 yards per game.
All of their offensive numbers have improved mightily over the last four weeks against defenses ranked near the bottom of the MIAA.
Pitt's defense presents far more of a challenge. The Gorillas are giving up an average of 17.2 points per game (third in MIAA), 298.8 yards per game (first in MIAA), 98.8 rushing yards (second in MIAA) and 200.0 passing yards (fourth in MIAA).
Opponents are converting a league-worst 27.8 percent of third downs against the Gorillas and they have the second-most sacks with 23.
Northwest's offense is directed by Adams who was just 5-16 passing in last year's playoff loss to Pitt.
He will be making his third straight start at quarterback this year and first at Arrowhead.
Since returning from a two-game absence, he's been a different player, completing 74 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and only one interception.
Adams tied a career-high with five touchdowns in last week's 70-7 win over Central Oklahoma.
"He's getting through his keys," said Dorrel. "He's not taking sacks. If you look at it, our sacks are down. Our negative plays are down. That has a lot to do with him."
Three of Adams' touchdown passes last week went to Shaw, all of greater than 40 yards.
Shaw has seven touchdown receptions over the last four games, second-most among receivers in the MIAA.
He leads Northwest with 27 catches for 529 yards and scored once against Pitt last year.
Running back Jordan Simmons scored three touchdowns last week as well last week, giving him a league-high nine on the season.
He's Northwest's second leading receiver with 26 catches and is third on the team in rushing with 234 yards.
James Franklin III leads Northwest with 336 yards and has scored three touchdowns.
Franklin rushed for 116 yards against Pitt at Arrowhead last year, but was held to 43 the second time around.
Pitt's defense contains elite talent at all three levels.
Senior defensive end Gus Toca, a first-team All-MIAA selection, is tied for the league-lead with five sacks and ranks fourth with 9.5 tackles for loss.
All-American junior linebacker Nate Dreiling leads Pitt with 37 tackles (4.5 for loss) and has 2.5 sacks along with two interceptions.
Page 4 of 5 - Pitt's secondary includes former Northwest cornerback Graylon Sanders, whose moved into a starting role.
The Gorillas two starting safeties are UNO transfer Jason Peete and University of Kansas transfer Keeston Terry.
Peete had a pick-six against the Bearcats at Arrowhead last year. Terry is tied for the team lead with two interceptions and ranks fourth with 25 tackles.
"He's athletic," said Dorrel of Terry. "They got him playing weakside safety. They expect him to spin into the box and support the run and not get caught up in play action. They expect him to turn and back-pedal and run with the No. 2 slot receiver like Tyler. He's a talented young man."
Northwest's defense vs. Pitt State's offense
Northwest's defense will get its first look at Pitt starting quarterback Anthony Abenjola who replaced two-year dual-threat weapon Zac Dickey.
Much more of a passing threat than a runner, Abenoja is the MIAA leader in pass efficiency and has also has the highest completion percentage (66.2) among all MIAA quarterbacks.
Abenoja has thrown for an average of 277.0 yards per game, nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
"Zack Dickey was as fine a quarterback a this conference has ever had in my opinion," said Dorrel. "The kids toughness and play-making ability was phenomenal. This is kid is very similar. I don't know if he runs as well as Zach does, but he does do a better job of scrambling and keeping the play alive and keeping eyes down field. When Zack would run it last year, he would just kind of tuck it and go. This kid does a really good job of staying mobile and keeping the play alive."
Brown, who averaged 178 yards and scored five touchdowns against Northwest last year, remains Pitt's No. 1 target.
He leads the Gorillas with 31 catches and four touchdowns with a league-high 108.6 yards per game.
Brown is also the MIAA top return man, averaging 17.7 yards on punts
Anthony Castaneda's 16 catches rank second on the team. Luke Rampy, the son of offensive coordinator Steve Rampe, is third with 14 catches.
In the run game, the Gorillas roll with bruising senior back Briceton Wilson and senior plugger Jason Spradling.
Wilson, 6-2, 226, leads Pitt with 256 yards and six touchdowns with a 6.2 yards per carry average.
Spradling has picked up 219 yards and averages 5.6 yards per carry.
The Gorillas rank fifth in the MIAA in rush offense with 177.6 yards per game.
They are first in total offense (485.0 ypg) and second in scoring offense (43.2 ppg).
Northwest's defense will be the stingiest the Gorillas have seen to this point.
The Bearcats lead the MIAA and rank fourth nationally in scoring defense (11.7) ppg. They've given up 13 points or less in five of six games.
Page 5 of 5 - The Bearcats also rank second in total defense, second in pass defense and third against the run in the MIAA.
Their 11 interceptions and plus-eight turnover margin are a league-high.
Northwest has taken the ball away 10 times over the last three games.
Defensive lineman Matt Longacre leads Northwest with four sacks and six tackles for loss. Linebacker D.J. Gnader has a team-leading 44 tackles.
Brandon Dixon ranks third in the MIAA with four interceptions and should be matched with Brown most of the time.
"We got to limit big plays," said Dorrel. "I'm confident we'll do that. We have done it all year. I really like their mentality right now. I really like where we are from a unit standpoint. They got a lot of confidence right now and they don't feel like people should be scoring on them."
In the kicking game, Northwest's Todd Adolf and Pitt State's Connor Frazell have both made 7-9 field goals on the year.
Frazell, through missed an 18-yarder and an extra point last week.
Northwest punter Kyle Goodburn ranks third nationally with an average 45.2 yards per attempt.
Simmons returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown last week. It was his fourth return touchdown of the season.