Before the year began, Northwest Missouri State set its sights on taking back the MIAA Championship.
And despite losing their conference opener to Central Missouri in week two, the Bearcats have set themselves up to do just that with eight consecutive wins.
Now, there's just one giant hurdle left to clear.
Tied for first place in the MIAA, No. 4 Northwest (9-1, 8-1) and No. 11 Missouri Western (9-1, 8-1) will duke it out for the full share of the MIAA title in Saturday's televised 2:30 p.m. regular season finale before a potentially record-setting crowd at Bearcat Stadium.
The Bearcats are going for their sixth MIAA title in the last seven years, with the lone gap coming in 2011.
Missouri Western last won the MIAA title in 2003, its only one in school history.
"How many teams at the beginning of the year put on their goal board win a conference championship?" said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "I don't care if it's a high school team, Division III team. How many teams playing in the last week and how many games across the country are for a conference championship? I bet there's not a lot. That's exciting for me. It's real exciting for Bearcat Nation to have an opportunity to hoist a trophy after Saturday's game."
The MIAA title is the central prize at stake, but this game carries serious playoff implications for both teams as well.
Ranked third in Super Region 3, Northwest is likely in the playoffs win or lose Saturday.
However, a win guarantees the Bearcats will host at least one round of the playoffs and could push them up to a No. 2 seed, providing a first round bye. A loss seals that Northwest will be on the road for the first round of the playoffs and likely beyond.
For Western, the situation is more dire.
The Griffons are seeded fifth in Super Region 3, and a loss could bump them outside the top six, causing them to miss the playoffs.
"I would imagine Northwest is really secure," said Missouri Western head coach Jerry Partridge. "Their schedule is a little bit better than ours, with them beating East Central and us playing William Jewell. I think our strength of schedule is better than Winona State's, but I don't know. There's humans on the committee. It would be a total crime if both teams don't get to the playoffs."
Northwest has added motivation on its side with this being Senior Day.
A class of 18 that includes accomplished veterans like offensive tackle Rod Williams, running back Jordan Simmons, receiver Tyler Shaw and safeties Nate DeJong and Clarke Snodgrass will be recognized prior to one of the biggest games of their careers.
"My last guaranteed home game and I got a chance to go out and win a conference championship on my Senior Day in front of my crowd in Bearcat Stadium," said Williams. "It's why you come here. You know the school is going to be in big games. I just feel like this week we're up for the challenge and we're looking forward to it."
Northwest and Western are meeting for the 34th time overall and the third time in the last two years during the month of November.
The two rivals played twice in a three-game span in St. Joseph last year, with Western winning the regular season matchup 31-28 and Northwest winning two weeks later in the first round of the playoffs 35-29 after trailing by as many as 19.
Western is making its first visit to Maryville since a 28-24 opening round loss in the 2010 playoffs. The Griffons have not won at Northwest since 2001.
Northwest is on a 14-game win streak at home, and since Dorrel took over as head coach in 2011, the margin of victory has been at least 24 points.
"There's certainly a will and a belief that you're going to find a way to win if you're a Northwest Bearcat playing in Maryville," said Partridge.
The Bearcats and Griffons enter their latest encounter having established themselves as far-and-away the league's top teams in recent weeks.
In their last two games, the Bearcats have beaten Washburn and No. 25 Emporia State by a combined score of 111-16.
The Griffons have won three straight since their only loss to Missouri Southern on Oct. 13, a streak that began with a 63-14 thrashing of Pitt State in the Jungle. In the last two weeks, Western toppled Emporia State and Washburn by a combined score of 113-56.
Northwest boasts the MIAA's No. 1 scoring offense (45.5 ppg), No. 1 scoring defense (12.1 ppg) and No. 1 total defense (297.8 ypg). Western is second in the first two categories, scoring 44.4 points per game and giving up 19.8 points per game.
The Bearcats have scored 31 or more points through the duration of their eight-game win streak and have only given up more than 14 points in a game twice all year. Western has topped 55 points in each of the last three weeks.
Northwest's offense is directed by junior quarterback Trevor Adams, the MIAA leader in completion in percentage at 63.8. Since returning from injury in week five, Adams has tossed for 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Adams started both games against Missouri Western last year.
He was 17-26 in the first meeting with 263 yards and an interception. In the rematch, Adams turned it over three times on the first three possessions but rebounded to finish 19-33 with 182 yards and a touchdown.
Adams' top targets are Simmons (44 catches, five TD's) and Shaw (41 catches, nine TD's).
Third leading receiver Bryce Young is set to return from a two-game absence.
Northwest's run game produced 318 yards last week and ranks fourth in the MIAA.
Elusive junior back James Franklin III and Simmons both average better than five yards per carry and have combined for 1,060 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns.
Simmons is coming his best rushing day of the year against Emporia, gaining 90 yards on 10 carries with two touchdowns.
Western's defense has been vulnerable at times, giving up 28 points or more in four games.
Their front four is among the best in the nation with Ben Pister and David Bass coming off the edge and junior Austin Baska in the middle.
Bass leads the MIAA with 9.5 sacks and Pister is tied for third with seven.
Pister is also the league leader in tackles for loss with 17.5. Bass is second on the team with 11 followed by Baska with nine.
Western lost its top linebacker Yoma Alli to a season-ending injury earlier in the year.
Cornerback Ben Jackson and safety Shane Simpson are returning starters in the secondary. Redshirt freshman corner Michael Jordan has a team-leading three interceptions.
Linebacker Stephen Juergens is tops in tackles with 57.
Offensively, Western brings in the league's top rushing attack spearheaded by senior Michael Hill.
Operating behind a dominant offensive line, Hill leads the MIAA and ranks second nationally in rushing with 1,688 yards. He's scored 14 touchdowns and averages 7.5 yards per carry.
Only once all year has Hill failed to crack 100 yards and that came in the loss to Southern.
He's coming off a season-high 259 yard outing against Washburn.
Hill is set to face a Northwest defense that held him to an average of 73 yards in two games last year and has yet to allow a 100 yard rusher this year.
"I think it's a giant question mark whether we can run or not," said Partridge. "We've had good running clubs and haven't been able to run the ball on them. It's not a foregone conclusion."
The Griffons present the added element of a dual-threat quarterback, something Northwest has struggled to defend in the past.
Junior quarterback Travis Partridge is the MIAA leader in pass efficiency with a league-high 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
He's also Western's third leading rusher with 363 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Partridge scrambled for 106 yards in the first meeting last year before being bottled up in the second game.
"When you add the extra element of the quarterback being able to run around, it's obviously something else you go to prepare for," said Northwest Missouri State defensive coordinator Richard Wright. "It adds to your challenge."
Western's pass-catching corps consists of senior Kyle Knox, senior Tarrell Downing, junior Tyron Crockom, sophomore Derek Libby and tight end Reggie Jordan.
Knox and Crockom share the team lead with 27 catches. Jordan leads the Griffons with eight touchdown receptions.
No one since Central has had much success throwing on Northwest which houses the MIAA's No. 2 pass defense.
The unit's 24 interceptions are the most Division II, helping the Bearcats to a +17 turnover margin.
DeJong has picked off at least one pass in the last six weeks and leads the team with six interceptions.
Linebacker Collin DeBuysere, last week's MIAA Defensive Player of the Week, and twin corners Brian and Brandon Dixon have four apiece.
The Bearcats sack leader is sophomore defensive tackle Matt Longacre with six. He also has a team-high eight tackles for loss.
Gnader is the team's leading tackler with 62.
The Bearcat defense no longer has to be concerned with defending as tightly around midfield now that Western kicker Greg Zuerlein has moved on to the NFL.
His replacement Taylor Anderson has made 10-14 field goals this year with a long of 53.
Northwest kicker Todd Adolf is the league leader percentage-wise, connecting on 11-13 attempts. He's 5-6 from beyond 40 yards.
Sophomore punter Kyle Goodburn leads the MIAA with a 45.2 yard net average. Simmons returned his fifth career kick-off for a touchdown last week.
"This game is going to come down to who executes the best, who takes care of the football, who blocks and who tackles," said Wright. "At the end of the day, that's what it's going to boil down to."
By Joey Falkoff firstname.lastname@example.org
The Maryville Daily Forum - Maryville, MO
By Joey Falkoff email@example.com
Updated Nov. 9, 2012 @ 1:54 pm
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