Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel gave encouraging updates Tuesday on the injury statuses of running backs Jordan Simmons and James Franklin III.
He expects that at least one and possibly both of the team's leading rushers will be ready in time for Saturday's second round playoff tilt with top-seeded Minnesota St.-Mankato.
Simmons, who broke his arm in practice last Tuesday and sat out Northwest's 35-0 first round win over Harding, took part in on-field activities Monday. Dorrel said definitively he would play.
Franklin III's status is a little less certain.
He left the Harding game during the opening series with a hip-pointer and bruised ribs and returned to the field on crutches.
Franklin III was held out of practice Tuesday, but Dorrel feels good about his chances of playing as well.
"He's still got limited mobility," said Dorrel. "But he's progressing to where my medical people are saying he's probably going to play."
The return of both players would provide a huge boost to fourth-seeded Northwest's upset chances.
A threat to rip off big chunks every time he touches it, Franklin III is Northwest's leading rusher with 733 yards and 12 touchdowns. Simmons, a second-team All-MIAA selection, is the team's second leading rusher with 450 yards, second leading receiver with 50 catches and one of the MIAA's top return weapons.
"Certainly when you have two of your play-makers on your football team that are going to play, it helps," said Dorrel.
Simmons will resume all four of his roles on the team as long as he shows no limitations in practice.
Dorrel watched him workout Monday and found there to be no visible one's.
Backs-ups Billy Creason and Kohlman Adema-Schulte are ready to fill in again should Franklin III not be available.
Creason ran for a team-high 113 yards on 18 carries against Harding with a touchdown. Adema-Schulte added 22 yards and a score.
"What we did this week because we know what we may or may not have is we're really flexible with our script," said Dorrel. "That's going to allow us to move Billy from the tailback to what we call C-back. Whether he's playing that or not, he's going to play a lot like always, plus special teams."
The biggest reason Northwest Missouri State leads the MIAA in turnover margin at +21 is because of their defense.
Northwest has taken the ball away 34 times this year, with a Division II-leading total of 27 interceptions.
Not to be discounted either is how little the Bearcats are giving the ball away themselves.
Northwest's season total of 13 turnovers is the fewest in the MIAA by four over Central Missouri, and the Bearcats have now played two more games.
Page 2 of 2 - The Bearcats have lost only three fumbles on the year, second-fewest in the MIAA to Central, and their 10 interceptions are the third-fewest.
Northwest has played turnover-free football the last two games, and since turning it over six times the first two weeks, they've committed just seven more in the last 10.
Five Trevor Adams interceptions contributed largely to their early turnover woes, but Adams has been a much better decision-maker as of late.
In four of his last five starts and two straight, he has not thrown an interception.
"I think he's relying on people around him a lot more," said Dorrel. "I think he's really bought into the fact that we've got a great punter and that we're great on defense and that it's okay to punt the football. I think Charlie (Flohr) has done a really good job with him over the year getting him to understand that there's times when you need to try to make a play and there's other times when it's not there, punt the football."
On its last visit to Minnesota to play Minnesota-Duluth in the 2010 semifinals, the Bearcats dealt with some of the harshest winter weather conditions imaginable.
Temperatures on that December night were in single-digits and the wind chill was recorded at -20.
It made for a miserable three hours beyond the game's result, a 17-13 loss that kept Northwest out of the national title game.
To Northwest's delight, conditions will be much more comfortable Saturday in Mankato, a town of close to 40,000 located in the southern part of the state.
An early forecast calls for 33 degree temperatures, partly cloudy skies and winds at 10 miles per hour.
"To football players, that's not what I would term cold by any stretch of the imagination," said Dorrel. "I don't think the weather will factor into the game at all with the cold. If it's windy, and it's not supposed to be windy, I think the wind plays more of a part in games like that then when it's really cold."
One member of Northwest Missouri State's coaching staff will be extremely familiar with the surroundings of Mankato's Blakeslee Stadium.
Northwest secondary coach Ken Gordon spent two seasons as Minnesota St.-Mankato's defensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006.
Northwest actually played Mankato both years, winning in overtime 24-21 in 2005 and 31-14 in 2006.
Gordon, who joined Northwest's staff in 2011 following a four-year stint at Emporia State, is looking forward to the Thanksgiving weekend reunion.
"He's got friends and family up there," said Dorrel. "First and foremost he's excited because it's easy for his family and friends to come and get to see him and vice versa. He's friends with guys on the staff just like we all are. We know their staff. I think any time you go back and play a game where you used to work, it always has a little bit more meaning."