The weather was frightful, but the outcome of the NCAA Division II football championship game was delightful for Northwest Missouri State.
The Bearcats outlasted North Alabama 29-3 in wintry conditions that included snow falling from the kickoff through the game’s conclusion.
The temperature was 13 degrees with a minus-4 wind chill when the game started and dropped from there.
The snow was a dusting at first but soon covered the field and fell at such a pace in the second half that workers at Children’s Mercy Park were constantly clearing the sidelines with leaf blowers and shovels. The yard lines were guesswork throughout the game.
For North Alabama quarterback Jacob Tucker, the problems started after a few plays in a series.
“I’d come from the sideline and my hands were warm and dry,” Tucker said. “But you’d get tackled and my hands would get wet and freeze. It’s something I hadn’t experienced before.”
Northwest Missouri State was in better shape to handle the conditions. The Bearcats are a power team; the Lions rely on speed and getting the edge. That wasn’t possible Saturday. Northwest Missouri outrushed North Alabama 226-22.
“I certainly do think it played into our favor,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said. “We know if you want to win playoff games you have to be able to punt and kick into the wind, run the football, play action. We’ve tried to build our team around days like today.”
It took a while, and a change of offensive pace for Northwest Missouri to get rolling. Starting quarterback Kyle Zimmerman injured his right shoulder in last week’s semifinal victory over Ferris State and didn’t finish the game. The team didn’t know until Thursday that he would start.
He did, but the Bearcats benefited from Randy Schmidt, a wide receiver, lining up in the wildcat on its first touchdown.
Schmidt took the snap and went a couple of steps to his right before pitching the ball forward to Jordan Grove. The shovel pass covered 7 yards for the touchdown.
North Alabama had an earlier opportunity, but Northwest Missouri safety Jack Young intercepted a Tucker pass in the end zone.
“I didn’t make the best decision, and they took advantage of the bad decision,” Tucker said.
The Lions got on the board with their most impressive drive that started after the Bearcats’ first touchdown. North Alabama went 60 yards in less than a minute and booted a short field goal.
The teams traded turnovers to open the second half, and Northwest Missouri got the better of the deal.
Tucker was taken down by linebacker Jacob Vollstedt and lost the ball. Ben Spaeth was there for the recovery, and the Bearcats started on the North Alabama 40.
Zimmerman set up a touchdown with a 19-yard keeper. Running back Phil Jackson powered in from the 2 on the next snap.
The Bearcats had their insurance, and would add a safety, a Zimmerman touchdown pass to tight end Shane Williams and a short scoring run by Jackson to pad the advantage and turn things over to a defense that never let North Alabama have a chance.
The Lions finished with 201 total yards, and sacked Tucker four times, with 2 1/2 credited to Cass Weitl.
“We had a game plan to make (Tucker) spill out, and we executed the game plan really well,” Weitl said.
The ball was slippery for both teams but Northwest Missouri took advantage on special teams, putting constant pressure on North Alabama’s punting team. The Lions had a couple of costly bad snaps, and the Bearcats took advantage of field position.
It added up to the program’s sixth Division II championship. That breaks a tie with North Dakota State for the most in the classification.
It’s also the third championship for Dorrel, matching the total of legendary Northwest Missouri coach Mel Tjeerdsma.