Two Bowl Games, a Rematch, and a Look at Who Might Host in the Semifinals
by, 12-01-2016 at 08:26 PM (2395 Views)
The NCAA Division II Playoffs are down to the Super Regional finals, and the four games this upcoming Saturday will determine the National Semifinalists. With the Bearcats and Hornets playing each other last week, it was ensured an MIAA team would play in the regional final for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons (only the 2014 season being the exception since the 2004 campaign, which was also the year the playoffs expanded to from 16 to 24 teams). For the fourth time in the last 5 seasons (again, the 2014 year being the exception) and the seventh time in the last 9 seasons (2011 being the other exception), a team will make its first appearance in the quarterfinals bracket that the MIAA resides in. This year’s newcomer is Harding, who evened their all-time NCAA playoff record to 2-2 with wins over Central Missouri and Sioux Falls. Their two playoff losses came in 2014 against Pittsburg State, and in 2012 against Northwest Missouri State. The Bisons will be looking to exact revenge on the 35-0 loss they took in Maryville four years ago and extend the season of their longtime coach Ronnie Huckeba, who announced he would be retiring after the 2016 campaign. Huckeba has been the Head Coach of his alma mater for the last 10 years, and was an assistant at Harding for 21 years before he was promoted, the last 13 of those as Defensive Coordinator. Interestingly enough, Huckeba has ties to NWMSU, as his daughter is a Bearcat Alumnus, and as this article from NewsPressnow.com talks about, he made the trip up to Maryville 8 years ago to get a few tips from former NWMSU Head Coach Mel Tjeerdsma. It would seem like he got some very good advice, as he is the only coach in Harding’s history to take three teams to the postseason.
In addition to the Bearcat’s playoff game, two other MIAA teams will see action this Saturday in Bowl games, as Washburn will be playing Bemidji State in the Mineral Water Bowl, and Fort Hays State will play Eastern New Mexico in the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl. Before we get to the games this week, here’s what happened between the Hornets and Bearcats in Maryville this past week:
Emporia State 13
Northwest Missouri State 44
Some costly early mistakes by the Hornets dug themselves into an early hole, and that is exactly the opposite of what they needed to do to win this game. After getting a couple first downs, the Hornet offense couldn’t convert on their first third down opportunity and were forced to punt. Kicking into a bit of a wind, the punt went only 14 yards, setting up the nation’s second best scoring offense at their own 39 yard line. The Bearcats needed only 6 plays to go the 61 yards, culminating in a 6yd shovel pass from Kyle Zimmerman to Shane Williams. Now, if you would have told me this TD would be Zimmerman’s only TD pass on the day, I would have thought the Bearcats would be in a dogfight. That didn’t end up being anywhere near how the game would go, though, and the Hornets’ second costly mistake happened on the ensuing drive. A fumble on the second play of the drive gave the ball right back to the Bearcats on the Hornet’s 12 yard line, and three plays later, the Bearcats were up 14-0. After trading 3-and-outs, the Hornets were pinned at their own one yard line, but got a first down for a little breathing room before being forced to punt again three plays later. Neither team converted a third down in the first quarter, and it ended with the Bearcats up 17-0. The Hornets’ best drive of the game came after Simon Matheison’s first field goal, and they went 75 yards in nine plays to get on the board with a 12 yard touchdown pass from Braxton Marstall to Justin Brown early in the second quarter. The Bearcats took the momentum right back, first by blocking the extra point attempt, and then going 75 yards in just four plays to go up 24-6, the last 52 coming on a short pass from Randy Schmidt out of the Wildcat formation to Jordan Bishop, who broke an arm tackle in traffic and raced to the end zone. The teams would exchange punts until the Bearcats got the ball back with 2:33 left to go in the first half. With 1:09 left in the second quarter, the Bearcats got their first 3rd down conversion, and four plays later got their second when Kyle Zimmerman scored on his second 1 yd TD run of the day with just 18 ticks left on the clock. The Bearcats chose to short-kick the kickoff, and the Hornets took over at their 32 yard line. After a 12 yard completion on the first play of the drive, the second play of the drive fell incomplete with no time left on the clock; however, a roughing the passer penalty on the Bearcats gave the Hornets an untimed down, and Marstall threw up a Hail Mary. A defender got a hand on it inside the 5 yard line, but couldn’t knock it down, and the ball fell into Emporia’s Louis Dailey’s hands for a touchdown to cut the Bearcat lead to 31-13 at halftime.
Defense reigned supreme in the second half, as neither offense was able to score a touchdown. The Bearcats were able to get a couple more Simon Mattheison filed goals to extend the lead, and then Marstall threw his third touchdown of the day early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Hornet fans, the touchdown was scored by Jarred Bishop (twin brother of Jordan), who picked off the pass and ran it back 65 yards to conclude the scoring with 11:56 left in the game. Martstall ended up throwing for 327 yards and two TDs on 28 for 45 passing, but was intercepted twice and sacked 7 times. No Hornet ran for positive yardage on the day, and the team finished with negative 30 yards on the day. Kyle Zimmerman didn’t have the kind of day that helped him to the MIAA Offensive Player of the Year, but the offense finished with 37 points and 412 total yards (174 on the ground) to lead a balanced attack. The Hornets finished 11-2 on the year, with both losses coming against the Bearcats, who won their 27th straight game.
A Quick Look Ahead to Semifinal Host Possibilities
There is still the quarterfinal round yet to be played, but since I’m not a coach or a player, I can go ahead and look at the possible semifinal hosting scenarios. There has been some talk on the message board on the subject, and I will reiterate my opinion here. Now, to be fair, I have been wrong on just about every prediction regarding the seedings in Super Region 3 this year, so take this with a grain of salt!
For the first time since D2 went to the regionalization model of the playoffs that have been in place (2004), the semifinal pairings are not predetermined. In prior years, there was a rotating schedule where the Super Region 1 winner faced the Super Region 2 winner one year, the Super Region 3 winner the next year, and the Super Region 4 winner the final year, and the other two teams each year faced off in the other semifinal. Who hosted each of those two games was basically an extension of the playoff selection criteria, and it seemed to be primarily based off of record and strength of schedule (SOS). The problem with this rotating schedule is sometimes the perceived two best teams didn’t face each other in the finals, but rather in the semis. To solve this, the semifinalists will be reseeded and #4 will play at #1 and #3 will play at #2. Technically, depending on the criteria the NCAA Football National Committee uses to determine those seeds, there is still the possibility of the perceived two best teams facing off in the semis; it’s not a perfect system, but I think it is a step in the right direction. Now, I am going to go out on a limb and assume that the National Committee will do what they’ve done in years past and use D2 record and SOS to determine the seeds (with another reminder that I’ve been wrong on this subject an awful lot this year, but hey--it’s the criteria listed in the handbook). This will certainly be an interesting year, as there is the potential to have all 4 semifinalists being undefeated in D2. There is a guarantee of two undefeated teams as it is, as both teams in Super Regions 1 and 3 are each undefeated in D2; the other two Super Regions are rematches of games in the regular season. If GV and UNA can duplicate their regular season results in their quarterfinal games, then all four teams will be undefeated.
When the MIAA went to the so called “silo scheduling” full tilt in 2014, many MIAA fans recognized that the automatic SOS of .500 could eventually hurt the conference as far as hosting. Fortunately for Northwest Missouri State last year, the other semifinalist on their side of the bracket did not go undefeated, so the Bearcats got to host West Georgia. This year, should they win, they might not be so lucky. It appears that they also did not get any help from the second win against Emporia (who is undefeated in games not played against Northwest), as their listed OWP on the NCAA’s website only includes the Emporia numbers once. Again, with the silo scheduling of three of the four conferences in our Super Region, the committee had to apply the criteria a bit different the past couple years than they had prior, and it was especially evident this year, as I’ve talked about before. Still, since the other Super Regions went a little more in line with what has happened in the past, I expect the National Committee to do the same. If you look at wins and SOS, here is how I believe the teams would be ranked:
Harding: 14-0 with an SOS of 0.578
Shepherd: 13-0 with an SOS of 0.574
Grand Valley St.: 13-0 with an SOS of 0.572
NWMSU: 13-0 with an SOS of 0.539
California (PA): 12-0 with an SOS of 0.574
UNA: 10-0 with an SOS of 0.577
Ferris St.: 12-2 with an SOS of 0.573
North Greenville: 10-3 with an SOS of 0.611
A couple things about the above numbers: the records reflect that team winning this week, and the SOS numbers do not include this week’s bowl games, which I do believe will factor in. The Bearcats are trying to beat Harding and hope that both Fort Hays and Washburn win their bowl games to help their SOS. Also, you might notice that I ordered the teams by number of wins first, and then SOS second. It is quite possible that California could jump NWMSU because their SOS is significantly higher, even though the Bearcats have an extra win. With Shepherd and GV being essentially tied, it’s also possible the committee could invoke some of the other criteria and have the Lakers host their game. And, of course, it’s completely possible (some say probable) that the committee will go along the lines of the FBS College Football Playoff committee and seed the teams by more subjective criteria than the objective set I’ve laid out. If that is the case, then the Bearcats control their own destiny. I believe they are the best team in the country, so I wouldn’t argue against that logic (although I think the criteria does need to be redefined). No matter what, if either Ferris St. or NGU pull off upsets, they will not be hosting (barring the other team not putting in a bid or having an unplayable field). Having four undefeated semifinalists would be very exciting for D2 football, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
Bowl Game Previews
Mineral Water Bowl (Excelsior Springs, MO)
Bemidji State (8-3) vs. Washburn (7-4) 12PM
As we did last year, NSIC Columnist Matt Witwicki and I collaborated on the preview for this game, which you can read here.
C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl (Copperas Cove, TX)
Eastern New Mexico (7-4) vs. Fort Hays State (7-4) 6PM
There has been a lot of talk this week about how Northwest Missouri State will be facing the triple option offense in their playoff game against Harding this week. The Tiger program can relate, as they will also be facing a triple option offense this week in the Heart of Texas Bowl. In fact, the Greyhounds are #2 in the country in rushing yards behind Harding, averaging 347 yards per game. They are a bit more adept at throwing the ball, averaging about 133 yards per game through the air, and are ranked 20th in D2 in total offense. The good thing for the Tigers is that they have had extra time to prepare for the triple option, and considering they had the MIAA’s second best defense, something will have to give in this game. Kamal Cass is their leading rusher, with 1125 yards on the year from the full back position, and the Tigers will likely try to use their strong DL to get penetration and keep him in check. Sie Doe, Jr., the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year will likely not have as many chances to add to his sack total, but there is no question he can play an impact in the game.
Defensively, the Greyhounds run a 3-4 defense, and are pretty solid against the run, leading the Lone Star Conference in that category this season, and ranking 15th in D2 allowing 96 yards per game. The Tigers had a bit of trouble running against the 3-4 look this year, gaining just 82 yards against the Mules’ 3-4 while faring marginally better with 154 yards against Missouri Western’s defense. The Tigers seemed to have trouble moving the chains against this type of defense, failing to reach 20 first downs in either game. The good news for the Tiger faithful is that Jacob Mezera torched Missouri Western’s secondary for over 300 yards and 3 TDs, and the Greyhounds are ranked 115th in D2 against the pass. Balance will be the key, and if the Tiger defense can force a couple turnovers to give the offense a couple extra possessions, they have the firepower to make the Greyhounds pay. With three weeks to get his team prepared for the triple option offense, I like Head Coach Chris Brown’s team in this one.
Super Region 3 Final Preview
#9 Harding (13-0) at #1 Northwest Missouri State (12-0) 1PM
(Note: I would like to thank former GAC columnist Armo Wood for his input for this week’s column.)
If you like defense, then this game is most likely going to be right up your alley. Harding owns the nation’s top total defense, while Northwest sits at #3. The Bearcats are the stingiest in the country against the run and in giving up points, and Harding comes in right behind them in both categories at #2. Still, the two teams didn’t get this far into the season solely on the backs of their defenses. The Bisons are the nations’s top ranked rushing team running the triple option, and the Bearcats rank 14th in the country in total offense and #2 in scoring offense with their balanced offensive attack. Kyle Zimmerman was named as one of the Harlon Hill Trophy finalists from Super Region 3, joining Augustana’s Trey Heid. The Bearcat signal caller is fifth in the country in pass efficiency, completing 68.7% of his passes and connecting on 35 touchdowns against just two interceptions, tied for the second least in the country among qualifying starting quarterbacks. Clearly, Zimmerman has made good decisions with the ball all year, and he excels at taking advantage of whatever the defense gives him in the passing game.
While Zimmerman has likely had one of the best statistical seasons in NW history to this point, the Bearcats love to be physical up front and run the ball, too, averaging just shy of 200 yards per game. Phil Jackson is the bruising workhorse who leads the team with 769 yards, and Cameron Wilcox is the slightly shiftier but also hard nosed runner who has 547 yards and leads the team in rushing TDs with 11. The Bearcats are extremely creative in how they manufacture yards, both on the ground and through the air, with 5 players over 200 rushing yards and 7 players over 200 yards receiving on the year. However, Northwest will be without their most productive receiver, Shawn Bane, who leads the team in yards and touchdowns and was the primary vertical threat. Even had the ‘Cats still had Bane, however, they would likely be facing their toughest test to date. The Harding DL has some size in the middle, and they are fast off the edge on the line. The LBs are typically free to make tackles, and while the defense has been very stout against the run, the pass defense sits at #17 in D2 land, so they are a well rounded unit. If there is a chink in the armor, however, it may be that the unit is helped tremendously by the offense. The triple option is notorious for keeping the other offense on the sideline, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their success thus far against what I will assume to be the best offense they’ve seen this year. A big key to the game will be 3rd down conversions; the Bearcats rank 19th in D2 at a 47.8% conversion rate, but that number has dropped a bit since the injury to Bane. In the last three games, Northwest has gone 4/15, 3/13, and 5/14 on third down, and that won’t get any easier against Harding’s 12th ranked 3rd down defense.
When Harding came to Maryville four years ago for a first round matchup, they rushed for over 300 yards and 5 yards per carry. For the most part, they did very well between the 20’s before the Bearcat defense stiffened up and kept the Bisons off the board. The 2012 Bearcat defense allowed 140 yards per game, and this year’s unit allows less than half of that. A concern for the Bearcats might be the lack of familiarity against the triple option. While it is certainly true that not every team running that style of offense does it the same way (and there is a very good chance that Harding runs it better than any other team in D2), the Bearcats did have the luxury of facing a triple option offense earlier in the 2012 season when they beat Missouri Southern. This year’s squad has a handful of players that prepared and played against it in the 2013 National Championship game against Lenoir-Rhyne, but that was the last time the Bearcats have seen this offense. Probably the biggest thing that hurt Harding four years ago was their lack of a passing game. The Bisons connected on only 3 passes on 9 attempts and had two of those attempts intercepted. Statistically, this year’s team is only slightly better than the 2012 squad, but they have shown that they have the capability of doing damage through the air in both of their playoff games this year. Again, 3rd down will be a major factor. Northwest will try to force Harding into 3rd and long situations and then rely on their 7th ranked 3rd down defense to get off the field. The longer they let the Bisons have the ball, the greater the chance of the upset, and Harding ranks second in the country in time of possession. Harding also has a very good kickoff return team (5th in D2) and the Bearcats absolutely cannot give Harding a short field.
This game is very intriguing, as it will be another test to see how much the GAC has closed the gap with the MIAA. Henderson State got the league’s first playoff win a year ago against Sioux Falls, and Harding became the first GAC team to beat an MIAA team in the playoffs this year on their way to the GAC’s first Super Regional Final. Harding is a much better team than they were four years ago, and I would be shocked if they get shut out again. Still, Northwest is also better than they were four years ago, and they have been on another level this year, with the closest game being a 21 point win over Fort Hays. This game will be Northwest’s first non-MIAA game, though, so this year’s squad still has a measure of the unknown. I don’t think they will beat the Bisons by five touchdowns this time around, but I see the Bearcats advancing to a record-extending 11th semifinal in school history.
(Last week: 1-0)
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post below. You can also follow me on Twitter @IanD2FMIAA.