In the current era of Northwest Missouri State football, the standard for a successful season is measured by whether the Bearcats win an MIAA championship and/or play deep into the month of December.
For the second consecutive year, the Bearcats reached double-digit wins, finishing 10-3, but accomplished neither of those primary goals.
The Bearcats fell short of the MIAA title again because of a crushing 21-20 loss to Missouri Western in the regular season finale and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs with a 38-35 double overtime loss to No. 1 seed Minnesota St.-Mankato.
This was Northwest's earliest playoff exit since 2004 and marked the third straight year they've back-tracked in the playoffs.
It sends the Bearcats into their longest off-season in eight years without much to cling to even though so many positives took place over the course of the year.
At the end of the day, the Bearcats didn't win the two games that would ultimately define their season.
"It's my job to be realistic," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel. "We had a good year. There's no question about it. The league was extremely difficult. At one point and time, I think we had the third toughest schedule in the country. I thought our kids played hard each week. We had a great group of seniors and I'm just very disappointed for them the way it ended."
The most frustrating part is how close the Bearcats were to making this a truly special season.
They won 10 games by an average of 37.8 points and their three losses to Central Missouri, Missouri Western and Minnesota St.-Mankato came by a total of 14 points—the last two by four.
Beat Western and the Bearcats are MIAA champions. Beat Mankato and they're still playing.
Either way, the season, as a whole, is viewed in a much more positive light.
It's the fine line the Bearcats walk every season. For one of the few times, they were on the wrong side of it.
"It's something that's weighed on me a lot here in the last 48 hours," said Dorrel whose record is 3-5 in games decided by 10 points or less. "The problem is any time you lose a close game you try to replay every little thing in your head, every decision that you made or didn't make, whereas if you get blown out, you kind of move on. It's difficult because you train your team and your kids for those situations. You practice them in spring football. You practice them in summer camp. You practice overtime situations. You practice two minute drill all the time. When you don't execute, that's what's difficult."
Page 2 of 4 - Late-game failures cost the Bearcats dearly in their last two defeats.
The Bearcats couldn't hold a 20-7 fourth quarter lead against Missouri Western, giving up two touchdown drives of 60-plus yards in the final six minutes.
With a chance to possibly ice the game on a third and two play with under three minutes left, running back James Franklin III got hit for a two-yard loss.
Then on the final possession, wide receiver Tyler Shaw was penalized for blocking down field too early, putting Northwest way behind the sticks.
Two straight incompletions from quarterback Trevor Adams with 19 yards to gain for a first down ended it.
In the Mankato game, Northwest displayed its usual knack for epic playoff comebacks, rallying from a 21-point halftime hole to tie it at 28 in the fourth quarter.
The Bearcats had two quality chances to win the game in regulation, but did nothing with either one.
The last drive was particularly frustrating.
Set up at Mankato's 41-yard line with 47 seconds left and one timeout in its back pocket, Adams took a sack on first down, forcing a timeout, and then another on second down, prompting Dorrel to call for a spike on third and 11.
This brought up fourth and 11, and the Bearcats decided just to punt away and play for overtime.
By spiking and punting, the Bearcats essentially gave up two plays.
"It was my decision to spike the football because were going to run out of time," said Dorrel. I don't think I had a lot of options there. The clock in my mind was going to run down. I don't think we could've gotten another play off. We could've gotten another play off, but I don't think it would've been an organized play. I don't think we would've had a fourth down play potentially."
Despite the fruitless final drive, Northwest still had an opportunity to win it beyond regulation.
But Adams was picked off on a second and goal pass in the end zone in double overtime, and Mankato kicked a game-winning 27-yard field goal on the next possession.
Adams interception was his fourth of the game, a career-high that equaled his total from the past eight games combined.
His three first half interceptions helped dig Northwest's 21-0 halftime hole, just as his two in the first half against Central Missouri contributed to Northwest's 24-7 halftime deficit.
Like he did in Warrensburg, Adams responded with a brilliant second half, completing 13-16 passes with three touchdowns and no turnovers, but ultimately the first half damage couldn't be undone.
"All I can tell you is he's not the only one out there playing," said Dorrel. "There are some things that go into it. Certainly, he would like to have a few of those throws back. He was disappointed. We were disappointed, but I think if you take into account what he did for the entire season, I'm really proud of the way he responded after he came back from his injury. The thing I'll say is tell me an example off the top of your head the last time you saw a quarterback throw three interceptions and come back and play as strong as he played in the third and fourth quarter. It just shows you the type of leader and the type of competitor he is."
Page 3 of 4 - Adams banked his third career playoff win as a starter the week prior against Harding and finished with 2,515 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
He was at his best over an eight game stretch after returning from a two-game absence in week five.
The team's two biggest offensive bright spots were senior receiver Tyler Shaw and senior running back Jordan Simmons.
Thrust into the No. 1 role, Shaw had his best year with 54 catches and 12 touchdowns, while Simmons posted a career-high 54 receptions.
He and James Franklin III combined for 1,279 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns, down from the year before but still highly productive.
As a whole, Northwest's offense wasn't as explosive as the 2011 version that led the nation in scoring, but did put up 41.4 points per game—second-most in the MIAA.
Helping the offenses cause was the play of Northwest's defensive and special teams units.
Other than the Central game, the first half against Mankato and the fourth quarter against Western, Northwest's defense played at a high level all year.
The Bearcats fielded the MIAA''s No. 1 scoring defense, the No. 1 total defense and the No. 1 pass defense, while leading the nation with 28 interceptions, often setting the offense up with short fields.
Seven starters on defense made the All-MIAA team and three of those—defensive lineman Travis Chappelear, linebacker Collin DeBuysere and safety Nate DeJong—were first team selections.
Northwest kicker Todd Adolf and punter Kyle Goodburn also made the first team.
"It's hard to rank as many years as I've been here, but I'd put those two up at the top with some of the best defenses and special teams we've ever had here certainly," said Dorrel.
While its offense sputtered in the opener, defense carried the Bearcats to a 33-3 win over East Central (Okla.)—its second in as many years.
The following week, Northwest stumbled in its MIAA opener against Central Missouri, losing 31-21.
It was Northwest's first conference opening defeat since 2003 and forced the Bearcats to regroup in a hurry.
"I don't think we needed it to be real honest with you," said Dorrel. "But I thought it was a rallying point for our football team. I thought it was a rallying point for our seniors. I think it was a slap in the face to our seniors that we either this thing and we turn it now or we may not make the playoffs."
With no margin for error left, the Bearcats strung together eight consecutive victories, all by double-digits, and went 4-0 during the month of October with nothing but away games.
The only game ever in doubt during that whole stretch was the Fall Classic at Arrowhead.
Page 4 of 4 - Northwest fell behind 14 points in the third quarter, but scored the next 31 to rally for a 31-21 win that avenged two losses to the Gorillas the year prior.
Even though Pitt went on to lose the next week to Western 63-14 and later in the year to Lindenwood, Dorrel considers that to be a signature win.
"You can say well they weren't as strong as they were last, and I would disagree with you on that," said Dorrel. "I've said it numerous times this year, confidence in athletic endeavors is a fragile thing. When people lose their confidence, it can just spiral. I don't know if that's what happened with them or not. I don't care, but I know that was a big win for us. Any time you come back like we came back in the second half playing in a bad weather game where you're starting and stopping, I think it shows the mental toughness and the physical toughness of your football team."
After beating triple-option Missouri Southern the next week, the Bearcats out-classed ranked Kansas foes Washburn and Emporia State by 40-plus points to set up a winner-take-all showdown with Missouri Western for the MIAA title in Maryville.
The Bearcats had everything going their way until that fateful final six minute stretch that cost them the game and the conference title.
Seeded fourth in the region, Northwest beat Harding minus its two lead backs 35-0 in the first round of the playoffs before the season reached a hollow conclusion in Minnesota.
"I told the kids after the game in a very positive way that our football team this year we got a lot out of our talent," said Dorrel. "Any one of those 24 teams that's in there can make it to the national championship. I believe that you've got to have some luck and you've got to stay injury-free. That didn't happen. Obviously, it's disappointing, but we had a chance to get there. That's a lot more than other people can say."