At this point, there's nothing No. 13 Northwest Missouri State can do to get the MIAA Championship back.
The Bearcats opportunity to win the title was lost with their 21-20 setback to Missouri Western in the regular season finale, a game they led by 17 at the half and 13 late in the fourth quarter.
While that result is sure to sting for some time, the Bearcats have a chance to ease the pain with a lengthy playoff run, preferably one that ends in Florence, Ala.
This is something the Bearcats feel they are very much capable of even with the way the regular season ended.
"It was a tough loss, but I don't feel any different at all about our team," said Northwest Missouri State quarterback Trevor Adams. "I'm still very confident in the guys we got offensively, defensively special teams and the coaching staff. I feel very confident we're still in a good position. Now, it's a new season. Everybody is 0-0. We just take it one week at a time. We've got a big opponent coming in here and we're doing everything we can to get ready for those guys."
A surprising No. 4 seed in Super Region 3, Northwest (9-2, 8-2) hosts No. 5 seed Harding (9-1, 7-1) in an opening round game Saturday at noon.
At stake is a trip to the regional semifinals to play No. 1 seed Minnesota St.-Mankato (11-0). And for
Northwest that would mean getting to spend Thanksgiving together for a ninth straight year.
"That is some added motivation," said Adams. "It's so special being able to spend Thanksgiving here with our family. We all have our families back home, but it's different family we have here. We spend so much time around each other, being able to spend Thanksgiving and celebrate everything we're so thankful for, it's really special. That's something we're looking forward to."
Both second place finishers in their conferences, Northwest and No. 12 Harding are meeting for the first time in either one's history.
Playoff qualifiers for the 17th time and ninth year in a row, the Bearcats have a decided edge in post-season experience over the Bison who are making their first-ever appearance in the Division II playoffs. They were an NAIA school up until 1997.
The Bison enter a venue that has been unkind to visitors over the years at a time when Northwest is in lethal bounce-back mode.
The Bearcats had a 14-game home win streak snapped by Western, but have won 12 straight home playoff games.
Their last home playoff loss came against Northern Colorado in in 2002.
Overall, the Bearcats are 19-3 at home in the playoffs.
Page 2 of 3 - "I think our kids think (there's an aura of playing at home) and probably at the end of the day that's all that matters," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "I'm excited. This is my first home playoff game as a coach. I talked to Mel (Tjeerdsma) about it last night. There's nothing better than playing a home playoff game. It's always electric here, but there's just a different level, I think. We're really hoping it's that way Saturday. They run a no-huddle option offense. Hopefully, we can disrupt their communication a little bit."
Northwest, which had an eight-game win streak snapped by Western, is looking to extend another steak of 14 straight wins after a loss.
Harding is riding a four-game win streak after losing its only game to GAC champion and No. 2 seed Henderson State 38-10 in week six.
One of Harding's nine regular season wins came against East Central (Okla.) 31-14 in week four, a team Northwest beat in the regular season opener 33-3.
The Bison have been involved in only one game decided by less than 17 points, a 23-20 win over Southern Arkansas. Likewise, Northwest won all eight of its regular season games by a minimum of 10 points and suffered its only two defeats by a total of 11.
Both offenses averaged better than 35 points per game in the regular season and both defenses rank in the top six nationally in terms of points allowed.
A former member of the Gulf South Conference, Harding specializes in running the football and chewing up the clock on offense.
The Bison's triple-option attack produces 322.2 yards per game, fifth-most nationally, and only twice all year have they failed to top 200 yards in a game.
They also lead the nation in time of possession with an average of 34:35 per game.
Sophomore Romo Westbrook (649 yards), senior quarterback Kelvin Martin (643 yards, 10 TD's) and sophomore D'Nico Jackson-Best (493 yards) head up their rushing attack.
Martin has attempted only 79 passes this year, completing 35 with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. All but nine of his completions have gone to leading receiver Donatella Luckett (26 catches).
Northwest has seen the triple-option once already this year against Missouri Southern and knows what to expect.
"What the option does is it makes everyone do their job," said Northwest senior defensive lineman Ryan Meyer. "One guy breaks his job and they break a big play. It just makes us fundamentally sound and play physical."
Missouri Southern's 253 yards rushing that day were a season-high against the Bearcats who give up just 117 per game.
Northwest's defense is ranked third nationally in scoring and contains seven All-MIAA performers, including first team defensive lineman Travis Chappelear, first team linebacker Collin DeBuysere and first team safety Nate DeJong.
Page 3 of 3 - The Bearcats are looking to rebound from a shaky second half against Western in which the Griffons scored all 21 points and 14 in the final six minutes.
"I don't think it affected our confidence at all," said Meyer. "I think it gives us a spark of adrenaline and energy not to have that happen again. We just didn't make the play and we kind of let it slip away. We got those things worked out. Our defensive line is going to take care of the linebackers. Linebackers are going to take care of the defensive line. DB's are going to take care of us. We're going to try to work together."
Albeit against lesser competition, Harding's defense has been equally as stingy on the year.
The Bison, who run a 4-2-5, rank sixth nationally giving up 15.5 points per game. They are seventh nationally defending the run (88.7 ypg) and 26th against the pass (185.6 6 ypg).
Their three main standouts are senior defensive lineman Ty Powell (8.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss), senior defensive lineman Josh Aldridge (eight sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss) and senior linebacker Aaron Gillaspie (3 INT).
"They got 11 guys that fly around on defense," said Adams. "They're very fast and they're very physical upfront as well. We got a big task ahead of us."
Ranked sixth nationally and first in the MIAA in scoring, Northwest was held to its lowest point total of the year by Western.
The Bearcats are likely to be without leading receiver and second leading rusher Jordan Simmons who suffered an injury in practice Tuesday.
Leading rusher James Franklin III (723 yards, 12TD's) is positioned to carry the backfield load, something he did during last year's playoff run.
Minus his go-to option, Adams will lean heavier on second team All-MIAA selection Tyler Shaw (47 catches, 10 TD's) and sophomore Bryce Young (28 catches) in the passing game.
Adams has thrown 15 touchdowns and four interceptions over his last seven games.
"We've got our challenges facing their offense, but I think they have a lot of challenges facing our offense," said Dorrel. "They haven't seen one like this all year."
Both teams have quality options in the kicking game.
Northwest's first team All-MIAA selection Todd Adolf has made 13-15 field goals this year and 6-7 from beyond 40 yards.
Harding's John Gay is 14-18 overall and 9-10 from beyond 30 yards.