Andy Davis

North Alabama Returns to Title Game to Vie for Fourth Football Championship

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Some in the regional news media have billed this game as the D2 version of Alabama against Notre Dame. However, the home state would be the only similarity that UNA and Bama share in that analogy. Northwest Missouri has been the dominant force for the past two seasons and is continually in the discussion for the national championship on an annual basis while being tied for the most national titles in the division at five. North Alabama, though, also has a tradition of winning, being in the post-season mix most seasons, and is the holder of multiple national titles as well.

It’s been a long 21 seasons for the Lion fans that have waited for this moment to arrive again, especially during those 18 years that the Division II National Championship Game was played in Florence since their last appearance (and national title) in 1995. Now, the Florence community is excited for the team who have arrived in Kansas City, the city that won the bid against Florence, to play in what, for all practical purposes, will be a home game for NWMSU as it is just about 90 miles from Maryville. It’s a bit of an odd turn-of-events in that respect.

COMING FULL CIRCLE

From what I can recall, I began paying attention to football in 1985. That was the season I began my die-hard fan status for the New England Patriots, Alabama, and UNA. (I know. Don’t hate me.) On Thanksgiving weekend of that year, I had watched Van Tiffin kick a last second field goal to propel the Crimson Tide over Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which was a month or so before the Patriots went on a Cinderella run through the playoffs to get pummeled by the Super Bowl shuffling Bears. I was 12 years old and, between those two events, remember a very cold winter day in north Alabama when my mother wouldn’t let me go march with my school band in a nearby Christmas parade in Tennessee because I was sick. I laid on my grandmother’s sofa and tuned in to ESPN to watch UNA take on North Dakota State for the national title in McAllen, Texas. The Lions were outmatched that day but it started my love and allegiance to the hometown team.

The following year, Florence had won the bid to host the game and I was selected for a local area all-star marching band that took the field as the pre-game entertainment before the Bison faced off with South Dakota for another title. It was an awesome experience and would become a game I attended several more times while I was in high school. When I started UNA in 1992, the Lions came up just short in the playoffs against Jacksonville State, who would go on to win the title. I was also on the field that game with the UNA band and it was tough to watch our rivals win the title on our home field.

That all changed the following year as the town and Braly Stadium became electric with UNA’s first appearance in the title game since it relocated to Florence. Early in the 4th quarter, it didn’t look like the Lions would win but they pulled out a miraculous victory over IUP. It was truly an (possibly the most) exciting event in UNA football history and was the start of the golden age of the Lions gridiron program.

During that historic three-peat run the Lions went 41-1 with the only loss coming to (then I-AA) champion Youngstown State. It was another brutally cold day in 1995 when I played in my last game with the Pride of Dixie Marching Band and surely didn’t realize it would be the last time that UNA would be in the game for two decades. So many more title games came-and-went with UNA getting close to making the game and ending with the letdown of watching two other teams play in Braly. The Lions got very close three times in the past decade or so but all ended with semifinal losses, one to North Dakota and the last two to NWMSU.

Now, here we are, two years removed from the game-changing locations and UNA has gotten that monkey off their back. North Alabama will return to the title game on another cold day. I’ll be watching on ESPN 2 but hope that history doesn’t repeat itself with an outcome similar to 1985 and prefer to see a victory more like the one in 1995.

It seems things have just about come full circle for me, especially with the recent announcement that UNA will only have one more year of D2 action after this game. What a ride it's been.

ROAR LIONS!


D2 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

North Alabama (11-1) vs. Northwest Missouri State (14-0) @ 4 PM EST on ESPN 2

When I started thinking about UNA entering the playoffs, I was worried about how far they would make it. We Lion fans have been there and done that for many years with wins and losses in each round of the post-season. I was leery of potentially playing GSC schools in the second and third rounds, which has always been a tough road in the past. When both of those schools went down in the first round, I started to become cautiously optimistic that the Lions would be regional champions.

As the Lions drew Shepherd from SR1, that optimism continued but I knew it would be a tougher game, especially on the road in the cold. UNA wasn’t perfect last weekend but played consistently in all aspects of the game. Harlon Hill Trophy finalist quarterback Jacob Tucker took the offense on his back at times and willed them forward for first downs and scores with the help of his linemen, backs, and receivers (especially with another 100+ yard effort from Dre Hall). The defense was as stout as it’s been all year holding the Rams to much lower offense output and scoring than their season average. The special teams also did its job as several punts were downed inside the 20 yard line along with good kickoffs and successful field goals.

I was excited for the program and conference to have a GSC team represented in the championship game this year. But, I knew what the winner faced. Goliath. From the perception of many - an unbeatable foe in Northwest Missouri.

Yeah, those guys. You know, the ones that were supposed to go 7-4 last season but went undefeated and won the title. This was, actually, supposed to be their year (more than last season) to shine and it has been. They have dominated every game, pretty much. Last week was the first time that the stats and score made them seem to be human. The Bearcats battled a capable Ferris State team and showed great character in the face of major adversity when they overcame numerous key injuries, including Harlon Hill Trophy finalist quarterback Kyle Zimmerman, and took down the Bulldogs in Maryville.

UNA Key Stats:

Avg. Points Scored: 38.8
Avg. Points Allowed: 13.3
Offensive Yards: 437.8
Yards Allowed: 309.9
Turnover Margin: +13
Avg. Penalties: 65.6 yards
Third Down Conversions: 42.0%
Red Zone Scores: 83.0%
Field Goals: 14-17 (82.4%)

NWMSU Key Stats:

Avg. Points Scored: 46.6
Avg. Points Allowed: 12.6
Offensive Yards: 480.6
Yards Allowed: 243.8
Turnover Margin: +6
Avg. Penalties: 63.9 yards
Third Down Conversions: 48.9%
Red Zone Scores: 96%
Field Goals: 18-21 (85.7%)

As in many of my columns this season, I’ve listed certain key stats above. However, it’s hard to know how accurately those will be reflected in the title matchup because of so many different factors in this game. Northwest is nursing injuries that could keep some players from being 100% or not allow them to play at all. UNA will be traveling to play in an environment they have never experienced and it is supposed to be extremely cold.

From what I saw last week, there are several keys to the game for the success of both teams. The Bearcats need to stay focused on execution and not let the injuries deter the team. I know some of those guys will want to play but they should make sure they are able to fully contribute or let another (very capable) player help the team. They will also have to keep the rumors of the coaching change at bay for one more game and potentially use it as motivation to get another title for Dorrel.

The Lions need to play their best game of the season. This will include eliminating turnovers, keeping penalties to a minimum (especially personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct), and playing controlled defense. The “bend-not-break” defense has gotten them this far and I suspect could be the largest factor to victory in this battle. UNA will also need to keep scoring at key times as they have all season. The Lions have scored on their first possession of the game six times this season, within the last two minutes of the first half six times, and on the opening possession of the second half eight times in 11 games.

I think traveling to a colder climate last week really helped UNA better prepare for this contest rather than having played another home game. If I know Coach Wallace, he will have the team focused enough to give the Bearcats their best effort and, hopefully, a victory.

My pick: Lions by 8


GAME NOTES

* UNA Head Coach Bobby Wallace is tied with former NWMSU Head Coach and current Athletic Director Mel Tjeerdsma for having the most D2 national football titles with three each. Current NWMSU Head Coach Adam Dorrel could join this group with a win this Saturday while Wallace could lead this group with a Lions victory.

* The Lions have one player from Missouri in junior place kicker Kevin Henke. He leads the team in scoring with 100 points on the season. Henke, who played soccer instead of football in high school, is 14-17 on field goals, 59-61 on PAT’s, and averages 62.8 yards on kickoffs with 37 touchbacks.

* This is the 17th time a GSC team has played for a national title since the start of the division in 1973. Six different teams have represented the Gulf South Conference in the D2 National Football Championship Game.

* North Alabama and Northwest Missouri State have made more appearances and won more games in the NCAA Division II Football Playoffs than any other schools in the division’s history. The Lions and Bearcats are both making their 21st appearance (tied for the most) in the D2 playoffs this season. NWMSU’s 46 all-time post-season wins are a Division II record and UNA is second with 35.

* The Lions senior class of 2016 has a 39-9 overall record, with 10-3, 9-2, 9-3 and 11-1 marks over their four-year careers. They are the only class in GSC history to win the conference football title four straight years. They have also played in the NCAA Division II Playoffs every season that they have been at UNA.

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Updated 12-15-2016 at 11:19 AM by Andy Davis

Categories
GSC , ‎ MIAA

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