On the second-to-last Saturday of the regular season, No. 4 Northwest Missouri State and No. 11 Missouri Western confirmed once and for all they are the class of the MIAA this year.
In front of a Bearcat Stadium Homecoming crowd of 9,137, the Bearcats laid the wood to No. 20 Emporia State 55-10, running their winning streak to eight in a row and their home win streak to 14.
Down the road in St. Joseph, Missouri Western put a hurting on No. 25 Washburn 56-28—its third straight win of at least 28 points over ranked competition.
Now tied for first place in the MIAA, Northwest (9-1, 8-1) and Missouri Western (9-1, 8-1) will play each other in a high stakes regular season finale at Bearcat Stadium Saturday to determine the outright MIAA champion along with playoff positioning. The game will be televised by the MIAA Network, moving kick-off back to 2:30 p.m.
"I couldn't have drawn a better, written a better, story. It's just something to look forward to," said Northwest senior offensive tackle Rod Williams. "They (the Griffons) are a great team. They do things on film that you have to be prepared for. Their D-line is probably going to be one of the better ones that we've seen all season, if not the best."
Regardless of how the game with Western turns out, Northwest likely assured itself of a playoff spot by defeating Emporia State (8-2, 8-2) for the 18th consecutive time.
Abused by Missouri Western 57-28 the week prior, the Hornets were eliminated from MIAA title contention and likely won't make the playoffs either after an 8-0 start.
The game, like so many during Northwest's current win streak was decided before halftime, at which point the Bearcats led 38-3.
Northwest incurred a brief 3-0 deficit before rattling off 48 straight points, a run that began with an 85-yard kickoff return touchdown by senior Jordan Simmons—the Don Black Homecoming Award winner who finished with four touchdowns and 216 all-purpose yards.
Now in each of their last eight wins, the Bearcats have had a stretch where they've scored 24 straight points or more.
"Our defense is playing at a really high level," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "They're stopping the run and in college football when you can stop the run and make a team one-dimensional that factors in. We're good on special teams. We have a very good punter and a very good kicker. That just filters into the offense, having good field position. The turnovers: It's easy to score points when you don't have to go 80 or 90 yards. It's a good formula we have right now."
The league leader in scoring offense and scoring defense, Northwest eclipsed 50 points for the second straight week and held an opponent under 14 for the eighth time in 10 games.
Page 2 of 4 - After turning it over on downs on their first series, the Bearcats scored on their next five and nine of their last 11. Emporia had eight consecutive empty possessions after a 42-yard field goal by Eli Kuhns on its opening drive.
The Bearcats outgained Emporia 532-296 and had more than double the amount of first downs.
Northwest derived a large portion of its success on both sides of the ball by controlling the action at the point of attack.
The Bearcats rushed for 318 yards and six touchdowns, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and gave up only one sack. Emporia State ran for only 56 yards, averaged an abysmal 0.7 yards per carry and gave up four sacks along with six quarterback hurries.
None of this came as much of a surprise, considering Northwest ran for 349 yards against Emporia last year and the Griffons gashed them for 382 yards the week prior.
"Both teams we've played the last two weeks have very good offensive lines," said Emporia State head coach Garin Higgins. "That's where it starts upfront. We've struggled a little bit against the run, and they're both good at what they do. That's really going to be a good game next week."
Northwest ended up with four ball-carriers—James Franklin III, Simmons, Denver Lohnes and Billy Creason—that had more yards than Emporia's leading ground gainer Dozie Iwuagwa who had 23 on 12 attempts.
Franklin III carried it 15 times for 97 yards and scored a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Simmons followed his fifth career kick-off return touchdown with three rushing touchdowns from inside three yards and finished with a season-high 90 yards on 10 carries.
He also had a team-high four catches for 34 yards.
"I feel like as an offense we did a great job," said Simmons. "I can't just contribute it to me. You got to give it to the offensive line. They did a great job today blocking, creating holes. I feel like I did a great job using my vision and finding those holes."
Northwest quarterback Trevor Adams was 10-18 passing with 146 yards and an interception before being lifted in the third quarter with the Bearcats comfortably in front.
For precautionary reasons related to an earlier hit he took, Adams went to the locker room in the third quarter, but Dorrel said afterwards he should be fine.
Adams connected with tight end Vincent Defeo twice for 61 yards. Tyler Shaw added two catches for 52 yards.
Kicker Todd Adolf made field goals of 30 and 45 yards, increasing his success rate to 12-14 on the season.
The league's third highest scoring offense, Emporia State totaled 296 yards and was held to its lowest point total of the season.
Page 3 of 4 - Wide receiver Ray Ray Davis was the team's lone offensive bright spot with nine catches for 138 yards and a 5-yard rushing touchdown.
The Bearcats limited the MIAA's leading receiver Shjuan Richardson to four catches for 22 yards.
Senior quarterback Tyler Eckenrode, the MIAA's leading passer, was 21-34 with 267 yards with no touchdowns and threw three interceptions in a game for the first time all year.
Two occurred on deep shots down the field in Northwest's 24-points second quarter and the other came on short throw in the end zone that was tipped by diving Northwest linebacker D.J. Gnader right to rover Collin DeBuysere.
"Guys made good plays, but I still shouldn't have made those throws," said Eckenrode.
Safety Nate DeJong collected his team-leading sixth interception, giving him one in each of the last six weeks. Cornerback Brian Dixon followed with his fifth interception, putting him one head of his brother Brandon Dixon. DeBuysere's was his fourth of the year.
Northwest now has has nine interceptions over the last two games and 24 on the year, most in all of Division II.
"You're going to get more interceptions in the game of football when you play a zone defense and we're playing more zone defense then we've played because we can get a good pass rush with four guys," said Dorrel. "I think that's very important. I think that's the main reason why. I also think it's because have two very talented safeties that put our kids in a position to succeed. We're being aggressive in jumping balls, but for the most part we're not giving up deep balls over our heads. It's good to see."
Emporia State was beset by awful position almost the entire game due to two muffed catches and great kick-off coverage by the Bearcats.
On five of eight first half drives, the Hornets started from inside their own 25. And only once did they start beyond their own 30.
Two turnovers and bad afternoon by ESU punter Derek Jonas allowed Northwest to begin five first half drives beyond its own 35.
The Hornets got off to a decent enough start, turning Northwest over on downs and then driving for a field goal from Kuhns to take a 3-0 lead.
It lasted all of 15 seconds.
Simmons took the ensuing kick-off, faked a reverse to Shaw, veered to the left, made one man miss and was off to the races for an 85-yard touchdown to give the Bearcats a 7-3 lead.
"Just when we broke them down on film, we felt good we might get one this week," said Dorrel. "When those kids put that trust in you to sprinting up at the ball, it's good. He's been special for so many years. I've coached football for 15 years and he's got a really high football IQ. His instincts are just really good, really natural. I can't wait to watch it on film He feels those guys coming behind him and it's like rearview mirrors on his helmet. I don't know how he does it, but he's definitely special."
Page 4 of 4 - Simmons scored again on a fourth and goal play from the 1-yard line with 2:06 left in the first quarter to make it 14-3.
Northwest started its next drive at its own 16 and required just two plays—a 38-yard completion to Defeo and a 19-yard completion to Hinchey—to reach Emporia's 24-yard line.
The Bearcats eventually settled for a 30-yard field goal by Adolf to go up 17-3 with 12:07 left in the second quarter.
After a three-and-out by Emporia, Northwest put together a rapid fire five-play 71-yard scoring drive that ate up only 1:11.
The first three plays gained 29, 23 and 12 yards. And the last one was a 2-yard scoring run by Franklin III.
Down 24-3, Eckenrode tried to hit Davis down the seam, but the pass was picked up off by DeJong and returned to the Hornet 39.
Four plays later, Franklin III squirted up the middle 17 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-3.
An Adams interception into the arms of Emporia's Chris Poston at the Bearcat 7-yard line stunted Northwest's momentum briefly.
But on Emporia's next offensive play, Eckrenrode was picked off by Brian Dixon, trying to stretch the field again.
The Bearcats turned that into a 1-yard touchdown run by Simmons to go up 38-3 with 43 seconds left in the half.
In the third quarter, Adolf converted a 45-yard field goal to make it 41-3.
A Simmons 3-yard scoring run brought the lead to 48-3 with 3:13 left in the third.
With Northwest's second-string defense in the game, Emporia followed with its only touchdown drive of 75 yards and five plays.
Davis, lined up in the Wildcat, ran in the score from five yards out.
Lohnes finished the scoring on a 1-yard run with 1:26 left in the fourth quarter.
This capped a 14-play, 80-yard drive that consumed more than half of the quarter.