With seven straight wins through the months of September and October, No. 4 Northwest Missouri State has put itself in position to control its own destiny from home in November.
Currently tied for second in the MIAA and ranked fourth in the region, the Bearcats (8-1, 7-1) host the MIAA's other two conference title/playoff contending teams—Emporia State and Missouri Western— over the season's final two weeks.
Win both and the Bearcats will be outright conference champions. That much is for sure.
The all-important final homestand begins with Saturday's Homecoming game against the No. 20 Hornets at 2:30 p.m. on the MIAA Network at Bearcat Stadium.
Northwest trails Emporia by a half-game for the conference lead and would move ahead of the Hornets with a win, setting up a likely winner-take-all showdown for the MIAA title against Missouri Western (8-1, 7-1) in the regular season finale.
Emporia State (8-1, 8-1) can clinch at least a share of the title with a win and would be able to wrap it up outright next week against Washburn.
A loss takes Emporia out of the driver's seat and likely knocks the Hornets out of playoff contention as well.
Although it leads the MIAA, Emporia is ranked behind both Northwest and Western in the Central Region at No. 6.
Emporia appeared at No. 4 in the first region rankings, but dropped two spots after getting schooled by Western 57-28 in its last game.
The loss was Emporia's first of the year and called into question their legitimacy after an 8-0 start that was built against teams outside the top five in the MIAA.
"In this league when you're playing teams that are good on paper and by record, I foresaw that being a pretty good game," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "But that's any week. Any time you're playing two teams that are good teams in this league, you don't usually see a lot of lopsided scoring. At least traditionally, you don't."
Two days after Emporia's harsh reality check, the Bearcats re-affirmed their elite status with a 56-6 win over then No. 20 Washburn in Topeka, Kan.
It was Northwest's largest win over the Ichabods in series history and completed a run of four straight wins away from home during the month of October.
Northwest is set to play at home for the first time since a 66-6 win over Northeastern State way back on Sept. 29.
The Bearcats haven't lost a home game dating back to the first week of the 2010 season, a string of 13 games.
Two of their home wins during that stretch have come against Emporia State.
Northwest carries a 17-game win streak over the Hornets that was extended with last year's 62-21 victory in the regular season finale.
Meeting for the third straight year in Maryville, the Bearcats and Hornets represent two of the top three scoring offenses in the MIAA and are the two best in terms of turnover margin.
Northwest might be the most complete team in the MIAA right now, ranking first in scoring offense (44.4 ppg) and scoring defense (12.3 ppg). The Bearcats also have the league's top field goal kicker, senior Todd Adolf, and the top punter, sophomore Kyle Goodburn.
"In all my years at Northwest, we've never had a kicker and a punter as good as we have right now," said Dorrel. "I think defensively we're playing at a high level right now. Offensively, I think what we're doing is because of what the defense is doing for us and not to take anything away from those guys. Certainly, the No. 1 thing we're doing right is we're not turning the ball over a bunch and our quarterback (Trevor Adams) is doing a really good job of going through his progressions. If it's not there, he's checking the ball down or getting it out of his hands."
Adams has thrown 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions over his last five games since returning from an ankle injury.
He's also completing 63.7 percent of his passes and ranks second in the MIAA in pass efficiency behind Missouri Western's Travis Partridge.
Emporia State has a pretty good signal-caller of its own, senior Tyler Eckenrode.
In his third year as a starter in Emporia's spread attack, Eckenrode leads the MIAA in passing yardage per game with 312.0.
He's also first with 20 touchdowns and has thrown just seven interceptions. Two of those came in the first half against Missouri Western.
"They put a lot on that kid," said Dorrel. "From what I watch, they do a lot of check-with-me stuff and it seems to me they're giving him a lot of freedom to do that. Down and distance, they're letting him go. They're letting him play. I think his experience level has really helped him this year."
Eckenrode's two primary receiving targets form the MIAA's most productive tandem.
Senior Shjuan Richardson is the league leader in catches (70), receiving yards (1,111), receptions per game (7.8), receiving yards per game (123.4) and touchdowns (10).
No. 2 wideout Ray Ray Davis is sixth in the MIAA with 77.2 yards per game and has six touchdown receptions.
Ranked first in pass offense, Emporia is going up against the MIAA's No. 1 pass defense.
Northwest is allowing only 175.1 yards per game through the air and has picked off a league-high 21 passes.
Safety Nate DeJong is fourth in the MIAA with a team-high five INT's. Corner Brandon Dixon is tied for fifth with four interceptions.
Corners Travis Manning and Brian Dixon each have three.
All four contributed to Northwest's six-interception haul against Washburn.
The Dixon's are Northwest's starting corners and will be matched up with Richardson and Davis most of the game.
Mostly a throwing team, Emporia gives the Bearcats little to worry about in the run game.
Emporia doesn't have a back ranked among the top 15 in the MIAA. Their leading rusher is Derwin Hall with a paltry average of 45.0 yards per game.
On defense, Emporia gives up 23.6 points per game, sixth-most in the MIAA.
The Hornets proved vulnerable stopping the run against Western, allowing 392 yards and 186 to the league's leading rusher Michael Hill.
This is in line with what Northwest did to Emporia last year, with James Franklin III going off for 229 yards and two touchdowns. The Bearcats finished with a season high 349 yards rushing.
Franklin III is Northwest's leading rusher with 567 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jordan Simmons has 306 yards and six touchdowns.
"We're looking at that," said Dorrel. "I don't want to sit here and sound foolish. We try to be balanced because I think right now our ability to maybe threaten people vertically with our receiving core is helping our run game."
Statistically, Emporia only ranks slightly better against the pass, but the Hornets have picked off 17 passes, second to Northwest.
Ten different Hornet defenders have at least one interception.
Senior Ben Carlson is the team leader with three and also has three fumble recoveries. His 85 tackles are the fifth-most in the MIAA.
Linebacker Aaron Matthews leads the Hornets with 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Northwest could be without wide receiver Bryce Young a second straight week, but the Bearcats scored 56 points in his absence against Washburn.
Simmons is Northwest's team leader in receptions with 40 and is coming off back-to-back five catch games. Tyler Shaw had a pair of touchdown catches at Washburn and leads the Bearcats with nine.
By Joey Falkoff firstname.lastname@example.org
The Maryville Daily Forum - Maryville, MO
By Joey Falkoff email@example.com
Updated Nov. 2, 2012 @ 1:11 am
» EVENTS CALENDAR
Connect with The Maryville Daily Forum - Maryville, MO