2016 National Championship Game Preview
by, 12-14-2016 at 10:25 PM (2302 Views)
Roughly three and half months ago, 170 Division II teams began the journey that will culminate this weekend at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. The two left standing are both unbeaten in D2 play this year, and just happen to be the two programs with the most playoff appearances (21) and playoff wins in Division II history. The Lions of the University of North Alabama are looking for their 36th playoff win and fourth title in five tries, having won it all three straight times from 1993-1995 (the only D2 team to accomplish this feat) after losing to North Dakota State in the 1985 final in McAllen, Texas. This will be their first appearance in the National Championship game since their last title. Meanwhile, their opponent this year got their program’s first playoff win the year after UNA’s three-peat ended and have become the gold standard of D2 Football, with a record 46 playoff wins. The Bearcats of Northwest Missouri State are looking to become the first D2 school with six titles (breaking their tie with NDSU), and will be playing in their tenth title game. Oddly enough, all of UNA’s titles and eight of NWMSU’s appearances came at UNA’s Braly Stadium in Florence, Alabama, which began hosting the Championship game in 1986 (the year after the Lions made their first title game appearance) and lasted until 2013. And the winner of that final Championship game at Braly? None other than Northwest Missouri State. Before we dive a little further into this matchup, let’s take a quick look at how the two teams got here.
North Alabama 23
Shepherd hosted their second straight semifinal against a traditional power (last year they beat 4-time National Champion Grand Valley State) and after they took their opening drive all the way to the endzone for a touchdown, it looked like they might just be heading back to Kansas City. The Lions’ defense had other ideas though, and after allowing five first downs on that first drive, they only allowed eight more the rest of the game. Of particular interest by the UNA defense was the job they did against one of the best receivers in Division II, holding NFL prospect Billy Brown to just two catches for 17 yards. Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Jeff Ziemba was held to 11 of 28 passing for just 112 yards, one TD and one interception. The Rams had decent success running the ball, finishing with 133 yards, but the Lions did such a great job against SU’s passing attack that it didn’t matter. Meanwhile, UNA QB Jacob Tucker, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist himself, threw for 178 yards and added another 113 on the ground (despite getting sacked 6 times) and accounted for both UNA TDs (one passing and one rushing). Tucker kept the chains moving on a few big gains on 3rd and long situations, doing just enough to help out his defense. The Rams finished the season 13-1 and won their second straight Super Region One championship in the playoffs, while the Lions won their 11th straight game after dropping the season opener to FCS playoff team Jacksonville State.
Ferris State 20
Northwest Missouri State 35
The Bulldogs converted a 3rd and 17 on a 28 yard QB keeper on the third play of the game, but ended up punting the ball to the Bearcats a few plays later. The Bearcats marched down on their first drive and scored on a Randy Schmidt 4 yard TD run to go up 7-0. After the two teams traded punts, the Bulldogs went three and out and punted the ball back to the Bearcats, but Sha’Corey Foster couldn’t corral the line drive kick and the Bulldogs recovered the muffed punt at the Bearcat 38 yard line. Two plays later, Trevor Birmingham completed a 35 yard pass to the Bearcat 3 yard line, and cornerback Marcus Jones left the game with an ankle injury. Birmingham crossed the goalline on the next play and the game was tied early in the 2nd quarter. On the very next play from scrimmage for Northwest, FSU All American DE Zach Seiler sacked Kyle Zimmerman, who fumbled and the Bulldogs scooped it up and took it to the Bearcat 6 yard line. Two plays later Ferris State took the lead on a 4 yard pass from Birmingham. Cass Weitl blocked the extra point and the Bearcats found themselves trailing for the first time in the playoffs. On the third play of the ensuing drive, Seiler once again got to Zimmerman, this time a split second after the ball left Zimmerman’s hand. Zimmerman was injured on the play and did not return the rest of the game. Head Coach Adam Dorrel and Offensive Coordinator Charlie Flohr used a combination of Randy Schmidt and backup QB Jonathan Baker in Zimmerman’s place the rest of the way, and the Bearcats finished the drive on a jet sweep pass down the right sideline from Baker to Shane Williams from 19 yards out to retake the lead for good. Ferris State managed a first down before having to punt the ball back, and the Bearcats once again drove the length of the field and went up 21-13 on a 2 yard Cameron Wilcox run. After forcing the Bulldogs to another three and out, the Bearcats ran out the clock and went into the locker room with the eight point lead.
Ferris State came out in the second half and played stout defense in the third quarter, forcing two three and outs, the latter of which occurred after the Bearcats forced a fumble but could not take advantage, and the resulting punt gave the Bulldogs another short field at their own 48 yard line. On the first play of the next drive, Ferris got their second of two big running plays on a 29 yard Jahaan Brown run around the right side, putting the ball on the Bearcat 23 yard line. Four plays later, the bulldogs scored a touchdown on a run from 6 yards out to cut the lead to one with 9:51 to go in the 3rd quarter. The teams again traded punts, and then Northwest got some breathing room after they drove 84 yards in 10 plays, finishing with Wilcox’s second short yardage touchdown at the end of the 3rd quarter. The Bearcat defense forced two straight three and outs, the latter coming after Jordan Grove lost a fumble in Bulldog territory. The Bearcats scored a touchdown on a Phil Jackson 10 yard run 13 plays later on a drive that was extended by a controversial personal foul on Anthony Darkangelo, who shoved Dre Washington to the ground after an incomplete pass on third down in FSU territory. Ferris State Head Coach was less than pleased, remarking after the game that “flopping is a part of the game, now.” Trailing by 15 with 4:32 to go in the game, Ferris drove all the way to the Bearcat 8 yard line, but hurt themselves with a couple more penalties and could not find the endzone, turning the ball over on downs. Bearcat All-American DE Collin Bevins was injured on the third down play, and left the field with help form the NWMSU training staff. Northwest ran the ball three times to run out the clock to win their 10th semifinal game in school history. Ferris State finished with 284 yards of offense, with 108 coming on the ground, and just 11 first downs. Coming into the game, the Bulldogs averaged 493ypg and 263 yards rushing per game, and ended the season with a 12-3 record and their second trip to the semifinals in school history. The Bearcats finished with 415 yards of offense with 147 coming via the rushing attack, winning their 29th straight game and improving to 14-0 on the year.
2016 National Championship Game Preview
#3 North Alabama (11-1) vs. #1 Northwest Missouri State (14-0) 3PM
Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kansas
These two teams will meet for the third time in history, with all of the games coming in the playoffs. The Bearcats won both previous matchups, defeating the Lions 25-24 at Braly Stadium in the 2005 semifinals, and 41-7 at a cold and windy Bearcat Stadium in the 2008 semifinals. The Bearcats and Lions are #1 and #2, respectively, in scoring defense in the nation, and with the forecast calling for some inclement weather, points will be at an absolute premium even more than they usually are in a championship game.
NWMSU Offense vs UNA Defense
The Bearcats averaged 480 yards per game this year (15th in D2), and are third in the country in scoring offense at 46.6 points per game. A very balanced offense, Head Coach Adam Dorrel does his best to mix up the play calling to the point where the defense can’t really key on whether the play will be a run or a pass. They use a lot of formations and different personnel groupings to try to get a matchup advantage, and the offense has been very, very good at taking what the defense gives them all season, whether it is a long, time consuming drive or a short, homerun-type play that ends up in points. They’ll be going up against a UNA defense that allows about 310 yards per game (20th in D2) and just 13.3 points a game. Northwest is 12th in the country in 3rd down conversions, while the Lions are 44th in 3rd down defense. The Lions defense allows just 4.37 yards per play, which was the same as Harding. Still, one advantage the Bearcats have is red zone scoring; they are #1 in D2 in that category, and UNA ranks 109th in D2 in Red Zone defense, allowing scores 80% of the time. The issue for the Bearcats will be putting sevens on the board instead of threes, as UNA has only allowed 11 TD out of 31 Red zone trips on the season.
NWMSU run vs. UNA run defense
The Bearcats average 186 yards per game running the ball (44th in D2), but that number has dropped by about 14 yards per game over the past two games as they faced two of the better run defenses in D2 in the quarterfinals and semis. They don’t exactly line up in the “I” and try to run the ball in old school power formations, but they are physical up front and both Jackson and Wilcox run very hard. They also get a lot of yardage from the QB position, whether it is Zimmerman or Randy Schmidt running the “wildcat” formation. All in all, 8 players have at least 20 carries on the year, and the Bearcat coaching staff will again look to try and gain a matchup advantage to exploit in the running game. North Alabama allows an average of 129 yards per game on the ground (47th in D2) and had some troubles stopping the run against a team that was more of a passing team this season.
NWMSU pass vs. UNA pass defense
Northwest’s diverse passing game averages about 295 yards per game (20th in D2). The focus is usually high percentage throws to short and intermediate routes, but they have made plenty of defenses pay over the top, too. Still, the top two WRs are out, including their biggest deep threat Shawn Bane, so there have been less throws downfield than normal since week 10 of the season. Couple those injuries with Zimmerman’s (who’s injury was last known to be very similar to the one Jeff Ziemba had going into last year’s NC game), and the deep ball may be even more rare on Saturday. Of course, that might not be such a bad thing, as UNA’s secondary is the strength of their defense, and the Lions are ranked #1 in the country in pass efficiency defense. With the Bearcats ranking 8th in team passing efficiency, it will be interesting to see which unit perseveres, and the Bearcats will likely continue to try and spread the ball around. The Bearcats have only allowed 12 sacks on the year, while the Lions have gotten to the QB 22 times (100th in the country). The Lions allow an average of 181 yards per game through the air (22nd in D2) but only 5.08 yards per attempt (2nd in the nation), so again, I’m not expecting to see very many big passing plays.
UNA Offense vs. NWMSU Defense
For the third straight year, Northwest has the nation’s top defense in terms of yards allowed per game and points allowed. They have an All-American at every level (DE Collin Bevins, LB Jacob Vollstedt, and S Kevin Berg), and while they strive to stop every team they face from running the ball, they are also very good against the pass, too. They allow the lowest yards per play and yards per game amongst FBS, FCS and Division II schools in the country, and will try to keep those numbers up against a Lion offense that averages 438 yards per game (42nd in D2) and scores 38.8 points per game (18th). North Alabama ranks 48th on 3rd down offense, and they will need to get good yardage on first and second down, as the Bearcats have the nations 8th ranked 3rd down defense, allowing conversions just 27.6% of the time.
UNA run vs. NWMSU run defense
The Lions average about 197 yards per game (34th) and 4.42 yards per rush (57th). Quarterback Jacob Tucker is their leading rusher with 902 yards, and while he gets a lot of yardage in designed running plays, he also showed last week his ability to make a big play with his legs on pass plays, too. The Bearcats own Division II’s top rushing defense in terms of yards per game, and are significantly ahead of the second place team in yards per rush (2.08 to 2.39). They have those numbers even while facing two consecutive run-first teams in the playoffs coming into the championship game. The key for the Bearcat defense in this one is to make sure they don’t let the very quick Tucker get outside. Ferris State’s Reggie Bell was able to get one good run on the Bearcats last week, but overall, the Bearcats have done a very good job against teams with running QBs.
UNA pass vs. NWMSU pass defense
North Alabama averages 240.5 yards per game through the air (69th) but a very respectable 8.67 yards per attempt (16th). Tucker is 26th in D2 in passing efficiency, completing 61% of his passes with 21 TDs against 10 INTs. One big problem for the Lions is that they have given up 32 sacks on the year (128th) in just 12 games, and while the Bearcats haven’t gotten to the QB this year as much as they did last year, they still have 43 this season (23rd). As mentioned before, Shepherd sacked Tucker six times last week, and while the Rams had quite a few more sacks than the Bearcats this year, I think the Bearcats will still be able to dial up some pressure, even if Bevins isn’t 100%. It will be interesting to see how his ankle holds up if he can play, because he had a monster game in Children’s Mercy Park last year, getting four of the Bearcats’ ten sacks in the title game a year ago. Again, the key will be for the Bearcats to keep contain on Tucker and keep him inside for Vollstedt to clean up. Again, though, that may be easier said than done, and Vollstedt is rumored to be less than 100% himself. If the Bearcats can’t get to Tucker and make him uncomfortable, he will be looking to hit leading receiver Dre-Ante Hall, who has 75 catches for 1132 yards and 9 TDs this season. Still, the Bearcats rank 16th in passing yards allowed (173ypg) and are tenth in pass efficiency defense, and they have returned five interceptions for touchdowns this year.
The Bearcats have one of the nations’s best kickers in Simon Mathieson, who has hit 18 of 21 field goals (ranking 2nd) and is 83-85 on extra point attempts (one of the misses was a block, and the other was penalty induced and 15 yards longer than a normal PAT). UNA’s Kevin Henke isn’t far behind Mathieson, hitting 14 of his 17 attempts. The two teams’ punters are pretty close in the rankings with NWMSU’s Matt Thorman averaging 38.2 yards per punt and UNA’s Jeb Millender averaging 37.7 yards per punt. The Bearcats are sixth in D2 in punt return defense, but the Lions do have a punt return TD this season. The Bearcats also do well on kickoff coverage, but again, UNA has a TD return on the year there, too. Both teams rank near the top of D2 in touchbacks, so there may not be many opportunities for a big return. One thing to consider, though, is that while UNA is tied for first in the country by not allowing a single blocked kick all year, the Bearcats lead the country in blocked kicks, with 12, three of which were blocked punts. In a close, defensive battle, a big return or a block could change the game.
With 5 National Championships between the two coaches, I’m not so sure there can be much of an advantage here. Wallace has more playoff wins than any active coach in D2, and took another D2 school (West Alabama) to the playoffs before his return to the sidelines in Florence. He's also looking to become the only Division II coach with four titles. Dorrel has won two of the last three rings and has won his last 29 games, and while he hasn’t been around as long as Wallace, he has gone 75-8 in his six years at Northwest Missouri. The one thing Wallace doesn’t have, though, is Rich Wright as his defensive coordinator. As I brought up before, Wright’s unit has been the top ranked defense in each of the last three years. With Dorrel running the offense and Wright running the defense, it is of no wonder the Bearcats are 54-2 over the past 4 seasons.
Advantage: Slightly NWMSU
In most years, intangibles wouldn’t make much of a difference, if any at all. This year, however, there are so many to consider and it’s quite possible that they will all play a part in the outcome in some way in this game.
Both teams have sustained some injuries, and ironically, the majority of them seem to be in the matchup between the NWMSU passing offense and the UNA pass defense. Zimmerman will not be 100% if he even plays, and Shawn Bane and George Sehl are out for the game as well. The OL has been less than 100% for most of the year as well. It seems that UNA has been bitten by the injury bug in the secondary as well. With Bevins questionable (and a possible future in the NFL to think about) and Vollstedt rumored to be on the mend, it will be interesting to see how much these seniors sacrifice to leave it all out on the field in their final game.
The rumors surrounding Adam Dorrel have not quieted, and in fact have become a little more boisterous lately on social media. Nothing official has been announced, but there are more and more rumors that he is going to be announced as the next ACU coach at their press conference on Monday.
By far, the largest impact on the game will likely be the weather. It is going to be very cold with a 60% chance of precipitation. While the Bearcats sure aren’t used to this weather with the late summer this year, they are more likely to be acclimated to it than the Lions. It is supposed to be windy as well, but I think the design of the stadium may limit that aspect of it. Then again, this will be the first windy American football game played in the stadium, so the wind may absolutely be a factor. The last time these two teams played, cold and windy conditions in Maryville helped the Bearcats put the Lions into a hole they couldn’t begin to dig out of, and it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.
The Crowd and the Stadium
The tables have been turned on UNA, as they won their three titles in the mid 90s on their homefield. While Children’s Mercy Park isn’t the home for the Bearcats, it might as well be for this game. With UNA’s graduation occurring this weekend and the impending weather, UNA was not able to sell their full allotment of tickets. Even if they had, the crowd still would have been overwhelmingly “green” with Maryville just 90 minutes away and a large alumni base in the KC metro area. The pro-Bearcat crowd was electric last year, and it certainly helped the team on the first play from scrimmage. UNA will need to do everything they can to take the crowd out of it, and even though they have played in front of a larger crowd at JSU than they will see on Saturday, the acoustics of the stadium will make it much louder than what they heard in the season opener. The Bearcats played here last year and played a tough team at Arrowhead Stadium this year, which mioght just give them another slight edge. Plus, the Bearcats won their last two games played on grass, while the Lions have lost their last two (Jacksonville St. and to Lenoir Rhyne in the 2013 playoffs).
I have had both of these teams as #1 and #2 in my poll for most of the season, so I am not surprised these two teams are meeting in Kansas City. The Lions had a little more trouble than what I thought they would against Shepherd, but they still did all they needed to do to win. Other than the Shepherd game, the JSU game, and the West Georgia game, the Lions have won comfortably. Similarly, the Bearcats just played their closest game of the season, and it was still a 15 point win. They have just been on another level for most of the year, and if both teams were 100% healthy, I think the Bearcats would win by double digits. However, both teams are not 100% and that fact certainly favors the Lions, due to where the Bearcat injuries are. Still, the weather is a factor that should favor the Bearcats, so it’s possible that it will cancel the injuries out, so to speak. Regardless, I think this will be a defensive battle, with the team that makes the least amount of mistakes winning the game. The Bearcats under Dorrel have been very good at minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on those of their opponents, and I think that will continue in what might be Dorrel’s last game as Head Coach of NWMSU. I see the Bearcats breaking the tie with NDSU for D2 titles, winning their sixth and Dorrel joins his mentor and this week’s opposing head coach as Division II coaches with three rings.
North Alabama 10
Northwest Missouri State 17
(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.