Given how conference play began, the prospect of No. 4 Northwest Missouri State winning the MIAA Championship appeared very unlikely.
The Bearcats (9-1, 8-1) lost their MIAA opener to Central Missouri 31-21 on Sept. 8— a first since 2003—forcing them to start near the bottom of the 15-team league and work their way back up with no margin for error left.
And that's precisely what the Bearcats have done, winning eight straight games, all by double-digits. That includes an upset of former No. 1 Pittsburg State at Arrowhead Stadium, a game Northwest trailed in the fourth quarter.
As a result of their surge and the lack of an unbeaten team, the Bearcats will get to play for the outright conference title Saturday at 2:30 p.m. against No. 11 Missouri Western at Bearcat Stadium.
It's a scenario Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel never could've envisioned right after the loss to UCM.
"If you would've asked me that right there in Warrensburg, I would've told you 'no'," said Dorrel. "After you get in and look at the film on Sunday, you kind of settle down a little bit emotionally. You re-focus. I felt good about mid-way through the week after Central just seeing our seniors really come together, taking charge of our football team. I thought a landmark win for us was Pittsburg State. You can say what you want about Pittsburg, maybe they're struggling a little bit right now, but you still got to beat Pittsburg at Arrowhead. To go down to Missouri Southern, to beat Washburn, it's just been one of those things where we've gotten better each week."
While the Bearcats would've rather avoided it, it's clear the UCM loss has had a positive impact on the team going forward.
The reality of an 0-1 conference start and perhaps being eliminated from the title race with another loss forced the Bearcats to take a stand.
"It just opened our eyes," said Northwest Missouri State linebacker D.J. Gnader. "It put our backs against the wall. Nobody wants to lose the first game of conference. It made us realize it's win or go home and we've treated each week as if it was a playoff week even though it's the regular season."
The seniors took the loss especially to heart, and as a group, they vowed to get things corrected.
No way were they going to let their final season go up in flames.
"After the week, we had to sit down and look at some things," said Northwest Missouri State senior offensive lineman Rod Williams. "Hats off to UCM, they played a phenomenal game, but I don't feel like we played our best by any means. It showed on our film. We came back and it showed in our grades. It showed in our execution like it showed on the scoreboard. After that week, all the seniors got together and we kind of sat down and we made it a focal point that we would just get back to playing for ourselves and having fun playing football because up to that point we were just doing it out of obligation. It's fun now. You can see how we play football is actually fun again. I think that shows up on game day."
Page 2 of 3 - While having fun again, the Bearcats have taken their game to a national championship level and no longer resemble the ordinary-looking bunch that sputtered through three quarters in Warrensburg.
Held to their lowest point total of the year by UCM, Northwest's offense has since produced at least 31 points in every game and averages a league-high 45.5.
Held under 100 yards rushing, the Bearcats now rank fourth in the MIAA in rushing offense with 202.8 yards per game.
Quarterback Trevor Adams, who was picked off twice in the first half, has only had one other two interception game this season. He finished the UCM game completing barely over 50 percent of his passes and now leads the MIAA in completion percentage at 63.8.
Hit often during those first two games, Adams rarely ever gets touched anymore because of a suddenly dominant offensive line that's even missing tackle C.J. Keeney.
"One of the things our coaches just really called us out on after the first two weeks of the season was we were doing a sub-par job, to put it nicely, of keeping our quarterbacks untouched," said Williams. "I think by week two we had already given up three sacks and 11 hits on the quarterback. That's just unacceptable for the caliber of people we have here across the board. It kind of made us play with a chip on our shoulder, and that's something we pay more attention to."
Defensively, the improvement has been even more profound on a week-to-week basis.
The same group that allowed UCM 31 points and three scoring drives of longer than 65 yards hasn't given up more than 21 since.
Very rarely do teams even move the ball on Northwest anymore, something UCM did easily at times.
Colter Smith, who threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns, remains the only quarterback to top 300 against the Bearcats this year.
He's also the last throwing quarterback to escape a game with Northwest with less than two interceptions.
"I don't know that we played great at Warrensburg, but the turnovers put us in some tough situations, particularly early, and then they made a couple plays," said Northwest Missouri State defensive coordinator Richard Wright. "At the end of the day, sometimes we had coverage on some people and they made a nice couple plays. You're going to have days like that. We didn't necessarily change anything. I think it gave us; I don't want a say a wake-up call, but in a sense we kind of did and really focused in on what we had to do. Since then, we've been pretty good."
Northwest has made huge strides on both sides of the ball without many personnel changes involved.
The Bearcat use the exact same skill people on offense as they did in week two and their offensive line is 60 percent in tact.
Page 3 of 3 - The only two new defensive starters are corner Brian Dixon and safety Clarke Snodgrass.
"We were young and we're getting better every week," said Wright. "The thing that we've noticed about Northwest Missouri State over the years isn't where we start, it's where we finish. That was week two and now we're approaching week 11 and that's one thing that's been a hallmark since Mel (Tjeerdsma) was here is that every week we're going to get a little better and a little better and a little better. That's kind of what we've done as a defense."
Northwest's overall response to the UCM loss has put them in position to win their sixth conference title in the last seven years.
With one more win over the hated Griffons, the Bearcats incredible climb to the top of the MIAA will be complete.
"We're getting a chance to do something we didn't do last year and that's play for the conference championship," said Gnader. "We've talked all year about controlling our own destiny and it's right in our hands."