MARYVILLE, Mo. – The goal posts at Bearcat Stadium came down for the ninth time on Saturday night.
Northwest Missouri State stayed perfect in home semifinal games by pulling out a 35-20 victory against No. 15 Ferris State in front of 5,264 fans on a frigid evening in a nationally-broadcast contest.
The No. 1-ranked Bearcats (14-0) will have a chance to defend their national championship on Saturday against North Alabama, which beat Shepherd to prevent a rematch of the 2015 finals. Kickoff for the national championship will be 3 p.m. from Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.
The semifinal win moved Northwest to 10-1 overall in such games and 9-0 at home, but this victory could be a costly one. Four starters left the game with various injuries, which forced the ‘next man up’ mantra to be in full effect.
“Boy it is hard not to get emotional when you talk about our team and their performance,” Northwest coach Adam Dorrel said. “I feel this this one of the gutsiest performance in Bearcat history. I’ve been part of a lot of big games. I’m fortunate as an assistant and as a head coach. I don’t know if I’ve seen a team grind out a victory against a better one than we did.”
The next men up at quarterback provided game-changing plays as Randy Schmidt filled mainly the running role, while Maryville native Jonathan Baker threw for 139 yards and a touchdown in his most extensive action.
The Bearcats fell behind 13-7 early in the second quarter, but gained momentum when Cass Weitl blocked the extra point.
“We aren’t down very often,” said Northwest linebacker Jacob Vollstedt, who had a team-high 12 tackles. “We gained our composure and had no panic. We bounced back and made some plays.”
Baker led Northwest on a 10-play scoring drive that gave them the lead for good. Baker’s shuffle pass to Shane Williams turned into a 19-yard touchdown with 4 minutes, 41 seconds left in the second quarter.
That 70-yard march also became the drive that Northwest lost MIAA Offensive Player of the Year Kyle Zimmerman to an injury. The starting quarterback and Super Region 3 Player of the Year exited after a hard hit by Ferris State’s Zach Sieler on an incomplete pass with 12:22 left. Zimmerman didn’t return to action and spent the second half in street clothes with his right arm in a sling.
That forced Baker to take over the main passing role and he went 18-for-24 and easily surpassed his season total of 99 yards passing.
Northwest took a 21-13 lead into the break, aided by Baker going 5-for-5 passing on the drive and Schmidt gaining 28 yards on a second-and-8 from the Ferris 30-yard line. That set up the first of Cameron Wilcox’s two touchdowns on the next play.
Northwest sputtered on offense early in the second half with three straight punts and between the second and third, the Bulldogs (12-3) got on the board again. Jahaan Brown’s 27-yard run on the first play moved Ferris State just outside of the red zone and then Trevor Bermingham’s 24-yard pass to Malik Taylor moved the ball to the 5. After a run for a loss, Devontae Harrington scored on a 6-yard run.
Instead of going for the tie, down 21-19, the Bulldogs sent out kicker Wyatt Ford for the PAT and he made it with 9:51 left in the third.
For the second straight year, Northwest held a slim lead late in a national semifinal game. West Georgia pulled within 24-23 last season in the third quarter, before the Bearcats pulled way for a 38-23 win.
A similar outcome happened this year as Northwest scored twice over the final 15:04 to secure the win.
The fourth scoring drive of more than 70 yards came late in the third quarter for the Bearcats, winners of 29 in a row — the longest active streak in the country. On the fourth drive of the third quarter, Baker led the offense down the field for a 10-play sequence that started with a 28-yard pass to Jordan Grove. The two later connected on a 21-yard gain that moved the ball to Ferris’ 29. Schmidt’s 9-yard pass to Williams, who had a career-high nine catches, moved the ball to the 1. Wilcox then scored his 13th rushing score of the season on the next play.
Up 28-20 heading into the fourth, Phil Jackson II had a 10-yard rushing score to seal the win. That became only his second score in the past eight games, but provided the dagger after Ferris State had the ball twice while down a possession.
“They fought hard. I thought they are a great football team. They are the best football team we’ve seen all year,” Ferris State coach Tony Annese said. “I thought we represented our league really well. I was proud of the way we played. We had to grind out everything we got. We had 284 yards of total offense and that is the lowest we’ve had in a long, long time. And it was just a grind every step of the away against a great defense.”