Northwest Missouri State’s drive for a second straight national championship survived its toughest test to date.
Not just the opponent, a game Ferris State team that pushed the Bearcats into the fourth quarter Saturday before Northwest Missouri pulled away 35-20.
The Bearcats also had to overcome game-ending injuries to three starters before halftime, including quarterback Kyle Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a fifth-year senior from Overland Park, was knocked from the game early in the second quarter. The duty to help Northwest Missouri survive fell to backup Jonathan Baker and Randy Schmidt, who usually runs the wildcat.
“It’s hard not to get emotional when you talk about our team tonight and their performance,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said. “I’ve been part of a lot of big games here. … I really don’t know if I’ve seen a team grind out a victory against a better team than we did today.”
Northwest Missouri, the defending national champion, will take on North Alabama for the NCAA Division II championship next Saturday at Sporting Park. Kickoff is 3 p.m.
In its 10th national title game appearance, the Bearcats will be bidding for their sixth championship.
The Bearcats put together two touchdown drives after Ferris State closed to 21-20 early in the third quarter. Running back Cameron Wilcox capped an 84-yard possession with a 1-yard run on the final play of the quarter.
The clincher came when Phil Jackson rumbled in from 10 yards out with 4:45 remaining. The drive was kept alive on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a Northwest Missouri incompletion on third down when Ferris State linebacker Anthony Darkangelo shoved the receiver to the ground after the play was over.
Northwest Missouri had won its first two playoff games by a combined 79-13 score. Ferris State presented the biggest challenge, but the Bearcats played a role in the Bulldogs’ success with a pair of first-half fumbles.
Both giveaways led to Ferris State touchdowns in the first half. A muffed punt set up a 38-yard drive, and a strip sack of Zimmerman by All-America defensive end Zach Sieler set up the Bulldogs at the 6.
After the Ferris State touchdown for a 13-7 lead, Cass Weitl blocked the extra point, and after several minutes of disastrous football, something went right for the Bearcats and they seemed to gain energy.
Northwest Missouri went 70 yards for the go-ahead score. But on the third play of the drive, Zimmerman was hit hard by Sieler and the Bearcats quarterback left the game.
“You could tell there was a sense of air release from our guys, just because it was him,” Baker said. “But that doesn’t last long. You have to refocus.”
Baker and Schmidt delivered. The duo combined to produce 309 yards of total offense in fewer than three quarters, with Schmidt leading the Bearcats in rushing with 71 yards.
“We just did a good job trusting the guy to the right and the left of us,” Schmidt said.
Zimmerman followed wide receiver George Sehl and cornerback Marcus Jones out of the game because of injuries. On Ferris State’s final drive, standout defensive end Collin Blevins also was helped off the field because of an apparent injury.
It meant the top-ranked Bearcats, whose average score in their 14 victories this season before Saturday was 47-12, had to dig down against a difficult opponent. Ferris State got this far by winning at No. 2 Grand Valley State last weekend.
“We were a tough football team tonight,” Dorrel said. “We talked about no toughness, no championship.
“It’s funny, you talk about that stuff and we really haven’t had to use it like we had to tonight.”