Despite receiving a total of one carry from its two leading rushers, MIAA second place finisher Northwest Missouri State had little trouble navigating its way through a potentially tricky first round playoff matchup with Great American Conference runner-up Harding.
With Jordan Simmons sidelined by injury and James Franklin III knocked out of the game after his first and only carry, the fourth-seeded Bearcats picked up enough positive contributions from elsewhere to produce a workman-like 35-0 win over fifth-seeded Harding Saturday before a subdued crowd of 4,692 at Bearcat Stadium.
Scoring on every other first half drive, Northwest took a 21-0 lead to the half and finished off the triple-option running Bison (9-2) with a pair of fourth quarter scores.
The Bearcat defense gave up a season-high 304 yards rushing, but nothing in the way of passing yards or points. The shutout was their first of the season and provided re-assurance that the team's 21-20 loss to Missouri Western in the regular season finale was behind them.
"Every day is a new day," said Franklin III. "You've got to flush the past and that's what we did."
Hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2010, Northwest extended its home playoff win streak to 13 games and won for the 15th straight time following a loss.
The Bearcats (10-2) also secured their ninth consecutive 10-win season and a second round playoff date with No. 1 seed Minnesota St.-Mankato Saturday at noon in Mankato, Minn.
Both Franklin, who left with a hip pointer and bruised ribs, and Simmons, who was wearing a cast on his injured left arm, are expected to be available to the Bearcats by then.
"I feel like Jordan Simmons will be ready to play at Mankato State next week and I feel like James Franklin will be ready to play at Mankato State next week," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "That's what our medical people are telling me. They may be limited this week in practice. But from all indications, they'll be ready to go."
Franklin's injury, sustained on an 11-yard carry on the opening series, forced the Bearcats to turn the ball carrying-duties over to back-ups Billy Creason and Kohlman Adema-Schulte.
Creason stepped up big with a career-high 113 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Adema-Schulte added 22 yards and a score.
"They didn't just play, they played real well," said Dorrel. "I think it says a lot about the character of the kids."
Northwest's team rushing total of 179 yards more than doubled what Harding was giving up on the season.
Not sacked one time, junior quarterback Trevor Adams added 212 yards and two touchdowns through the air, completing 17-25 passes with no interceptions for the fourth time in five games.
Page 2 of 4 - He and senior wide receiver Tyler Shaw hooked up five times for 119 yards and a touchdown, all of which resulted in gains of 15 yards or longer.
Shaw had four catches for 89 yards in the first half and a 26-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
"I had a lot of time all day," said Adams. "I can't give enough credit to our offensive line. It was a really good job of guys stepping up and taking care of business."
Northwest's 35 points were the second-most given up by Harding, the nation's No. 6 scoring defense, all season.
Meanwhile, the Bison, which averaged close to 37 points, went scoreless for the first time all year despite generating several scoring chances.
Five times Harding moved the ball into Northwest's territory, and five times they came away with nothing.
In the first half, the Bison lost a fumble at Northwest's 6-yard line, tried a fake field goal from Northwest's 34 that didn't work and had a 55-yard touchdown run called back because of an illegal formation penalty which head coach Ronnie Huckeba vehemently disagreed with.
Northwest also had three first half drives that crossed midfield and scored on all of them.
Basically, that was the difference in the game.
"The best team won today, but I think we're closer than that score indicates," said Huckeba.
The Bison out-rushed Northwest 304-179, but similar to Missouri Southern, got absolutely nothing out of their passing game.
Nine attempts yielded just three completions for -4 yards and two interceptions.
Harding lost its two traveling fullbacks, Romo Westbrook and D'Nico Jackson-Best, to injury during the game, forcing the Bison to move starting quarterback Kelvin Martin to fullback in the second half.
Wide receiver Donatella Luckett and back-up quarterback Keenan Kellett each threw a second-half pick in his place.
Martin was the Bison's leading rusher with 97 yards on 22 carries.
"We had to run double options instead of triple options most of the game in the second half," said Huckeba. "What a wonderful kid that he would be willing to do that."
Northwest put Harding in an early 7-0 hole with a 12-play, 70-yard scoring drive to open the game.
The Bearcats needed four cracks from inside the three before scoring on a 1-yard run by Creason with 10:09 left in the first quarter.
Harding responded with an impressive 12-play, 71-yard clock-draining drive, gaining four yards or more on its first eight carries.
In prime position to tie the game, Harding made a killer mistake.
On a second and goal from the six, Martin fumbled a hand-off that was recovered by Northwest defensive lineman Zach Williams (11 tackles) at the 7-yard line.
Page 3 of 4 - "It was a miscommunication on the part of myself and the fullback," said Martin.
A fast-moving first quarter ended with the Bearcats up 7-0.
On Northwest's third drive, Adams hit a tightly covered Shaw for a 35-yard completion down the left sideline.
Four plays later, Northwest senior John Hinchey came free on a crossing route and scored from 14 yards out to make it 14-0 with 13:09 left in the half.
After an exchange of punts, Harding gained 32 yards on consecutive carries before stalling out at the Northwest 34.
Lined up to attempt a 51-yard field goal, the Bison tried a pitch to B.J. Jones that was stopped for a 3-yard loss by Brandon Dixon.
Four double-digit yardage plays, including an 11-yard catch-and-run by Bryce Young on third and six, moved Northwest to the Bison 6-yard line.
Adema-Schulte bowled over a Bison defender at the goal line on the next play to give Northwest a 21-0 lead with 2:27 to play in the half.
Starting from its own 25, Harding appeared to get back in the game when Luckett raced 55 yards for a touchdown on a pitch sweep to the left.
But the play was called back for an illegal formation, igniting a lengthy protest from the Bison staff.
Instead of being down just 14 points at the half with the ball to open the second half, Harding was forced to try a hail mary pass that fell incomplete and the halftime score was 21-0.
"I'm not saying it was the wrong call, I'm saying that I contested the call," said Huckeba. "The film will show."
Both teams went scoreless on five combined possessions in the third quarter.
Harding's most threatening drive ended when Alex Finley was stopped a yard short of a first down on fourth and three from the Northwest 43.
In the fourth quarter, Harding turned it over twice more on interceptions by Brandon Dixon and Nate DeJong.
Dixon's was his fifth of the year. DeJong followed with his team-leading seventh and returned it to the
Bison 26. Northwest struck on the next play with Adams' 26-yard touchdown toss to Shaw to make it 28-0.
Bearcat back-up quarterback Brady Bolles added a 4-yard scoring run with 2:55 left.
Likely on the road for the remainder of the playoffs, the Bearcats now turn their attention to Minnesota St.-Mankato.
The Mavericks (11-0) are Northwest's second consecutive second round opponent with an undefeated record.
Lower-seeded Northwest has pulled upsets of Texas A&M Kingsville and Midwestern State each of the last two years in the regional semifinals.
Page 4 of 4 - "We don't have anything to lose," said Dorrel. "We're going to play a football team that hasn't lost a game. I love coaching in games like that. Our kids love playing in games like this. We have absolutely nothing to lose when we roll up to Mankato next week. We're going to approach the game like that and we're going to play like that on Saturday."