Eight months before the season, in the midst of an offseason workout program, Northwest Missouri State football coach Adam Dorrel shared his expectations for 2015. On paper, he told his players, the Bearcats were a 7-4 football team.
The statement wasn’t a prediction as much as an utterance that he felt reflected reality after the Bearcats had lost 22 seniors.
But it was a bit off. The final tally came in Saturday afternoon:
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Northwest Missouri State won its fifth Division II national championship in school history Saturday, when it routed Shepherd (W.Va.) 34-7 at Sporting Park. The soccer-turned-football venue set a Division II national championship-game record with a crowd of 16,181 fans — a rather high percentage of them wearing green and white.
“That’s been our rally cry all year. I remember in summer conditioning, people yelling out, ‘7-4. You wanna be 7-4?’ Anytime I heard that, I wanted to push it that much more,” Northwest quarterback Brady Bolles said. “You can take it as a slap in the face. (Dorrel) knew we were going to use it as a motivation. It worked.”
It ended well.
And it started well Saturday.
After Shepherd elected to receive the opening kickoff, its first snap of the game sailed over quarterback Jeff Ziemba’s head, and Northwest defensive lineman Cass Weitl pounced on it on the 5-yard line. Two plays later, tailback Jordan Grove scampered around the edge for the first of two touchdown runs. Only 47 seconds into the game, Northwest had the lead.
“We kind of took offense to them taking the ball to start the game,” Northwest defensive lineman Collin Bevins said. “We wanted to come out and set the tempo for the game like we always do on defense.”
The nation’s top-ranked defense held Shepherd to a season-low 97 yards, and it provided points of its own. Northwest senior cornerback Bryce Enyard put an exclamation point on the first half with a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown with only 20 seconds left in the half. The Bearcats led 24-0 at halftime.
Ziemba spent the majority of the game scrambling to avoid the Northwest pressure — an unsuccessful endeavor. Northwest recorded 10 sacks. Bevins had four, giving him 15 1/2 for the season, a school record.
“Is that right? We had 10 sacks?” Dorrel responded. “That was just phenomenal.”
In other words, the Northwest Missouri State defense was stout as expected as the offense took a few drives to find its footing. After completing only two passes in the opening quarter, Bolles found Grove on a seam route for a 74-yard gain early in the second. Bolles finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Shane Williams.
That came as part of his record-setting day. Bolles set a school mark for career total offense. The previous record-holder? His older brother, Blake, who led the Bearcats to the 2009 national championship.
Blake won one title. Brady now has two.
“He always says I got one already when I was a sophomore, but I don’t know if I really count that one or not — he was the starter when he won it,” said Bolles, who was a backup when the Bearcats won in 2013.
Even with Northwest intent on establishing its running game, Bolles played a factor this time. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. Phil Jackson added 109 rushing yards in 20 carries.
In sum, it produced the Bearcats’ fifth national title in the past 17 seasons.
“You looked there in January, and you were looking at freshmen and sophomores,” Dorrel said. “It’s hard for young guys to play in the MIAA (conference) at that high of a level. That’s probably what made it fun for me.”
They celebrated in front of a home-away-from-home crowd. Within the initial 24 hours after the Bearcats defeated West Georgia in the semifinals last weekend, 6,500 tickets were sold to the national-championship game.
The trip to Kansas City was such a short trek from Maryville, Mo., that Bolles said it required only one movie — “San Andreas” — before the mid-week bus ride was complete.
Northwest will ride back home as national champions.
A long way from 7-4.