Northwest Missouri State’s defense came up big and paved the way to a 24-15 victory over Pittsburg State in front of 17,679 in the Fall Classic at Arrowhead Stadium.
Northwest’s defense produced five sacks, four turnovers and two safeties and held in check Gorillas wide receiver John Brown, one of the most dynamic players in Division II.
“I can’t say enough about our defense, it was phenomenal, lights out,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said.
Second-ranked Northwest, 7-0, needed the spark after starting quarterback Trevor Adams left the game in the second quarter because of a shoulder injury and did not return.
Brady Bolles, who has taken plenty of snaps this season, came in and rushed for two TDs that gave the Bearcats the lead in the third quarter.
But this game belonged to the defense, which appropriately ended Pittsburg State’s final chance and the game’s scoring when Northwest was rewarded a safety after forcing Gorillas QB Anthony Abenoja into an intentional grounding in the end zone.
Linebacker Eric Reimer was the first to get to Abenoja on the play, and that was no surprise. Reimer was all over the field with 2 1/2 sacks, 12 total tackles and a forced fumble.
“We just stuck to our game plan,” Reimer said. “We wanted to be physical.”
That included pressuring Abenoja and bottling up Brown, who finished with three receptions for 17 yards.
Reimer’s sack of Abenoja late in the fourth might have been the game’s biggest play. Trailing 22-15, Pittsburg faced fourth and 5 from midfield with 4:30 remaining. But Reimer blasted through for the 8-yard loss.
Northwest’s defense was solid throughout the afternoon, but the Bearcats trailed 15-8 at halftime after Pittsburg scored first and last in the half.
Gorillas running back Jeff Seybold powered in from the 1 with 2 seconds remaining in the half, and the Gorillas tacked on two when Abenoja found his old Blue Valley High teammate Conner Combes in the end zone.
Pittsburg wide receiver Marquise Cushion, a sophomore who played at Raytown South, tightroped down the sideline in completing a 37-yard scoring strike from Abenoja on Pittsburg’s second possession.
But the third quarter belonged to Bolles. He went 8 yards for a touchdown on the Bearcats’ first drive, and after a shanked punt set up Northwest at the Pitt 23, Bolles went 10 yards for his second TD of the quarter.
Bolles joined his older brother Blake, as a winning quarterback in one of Division II’s biggest regular-season games.
The game can be so emotional it can help carry teams to great heights — Northwest won the NCAA championship in 2009 and Pittsburg in 2011 — or drag it down. Last year, the Gorillas were top-ranked when they lost this meeting, then were crushed at home by Missouri Western and didn’t qualify for the NCAA playoffs.
“Last year, we allowed this game to carry into the next week,” Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said.
The Gorillas, ranked seventh, fell to 6-1 in a top-heavy MIAA.