Northwest Missouri State squares off with another perennial D-II power in first round of playoffs

Northwest Missouri State squares off with another perennial D-II power in first round of playoffs
Zach Flott, a senior from Ralston, anchors Northwest Missouri State’s offensive line. He is a first-team All-MIAA tackle. “Zach is a very physical football player for us,” offensive line coach Mike Cunningham said. NORTHWEST MISSOURI STATE ATHLETICS

When it comes to Division II football royalty, it doesn’t get much better than Saturday’s first-round playoff matchup at noon in Allendale, Michigan.

Northwest Missouri State and Grand Valley State have combined to win 10 of the past 20 national titles. While Grand Valley won four times between 2002 and 2006, the Bearcats have captured six titles since 1998. With a 47-16 record, Northwest leads Division II in playoff victories. At 35-14, Grand Valley is second.

“It’s a great rivalry between two great programs,” Northwest offensive tackle Zach Flott said. “Their defense is disciplined. They’re tough, physical guys who like to fly around.”

Flott, a Ralston graduate, knows what it takes to win this time of year. He played in eight games as a freshman when Northwest won the 2015 national title, then appeared in all 15 games when the Bearcats won it again in 2016.

The 6-foot-5, 298-pound Flott was a second-team all-conference guard last season before earning first-team honors this year at tackle.

“The biggest thing Zach brings is an extreme work ethic to our position group,” offensive line coach Mike Cunningham said. “Zach is a very physical football player for us.”

Cunningham called Flott “the ringleader of the group.” Flott could be called that for the offense in general. He’s one of five captains on the team — the other four play on defense.

And Northwest’s offense has been more balanced and potent than a year ago. After averaging 25.2 points and 378.1 yards per game in 2017, the Bearcats average 37.5 points and 430.6 yards (208 rushing, 222.6 passing) this year.

“We have so many more dimensions to attack a defense from, whether it’s one of the three, four, five running backs we have, or all the guys we can throw the ball to,” Flott said. “And then Braden is a threat to run or pass. He puts a lot of stress on defenses to cover him as a dual threat.”

Braden is quarterback Braden Wright, an Elkhorn South graduate who has put together an outstanding freshman season.

After winning the starting job in fall camp, Wright has thrown for 2,235 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 496 yards and 11 TDs. His 11 rushing touchdowns are the most by a freshman quarterback in Division II.

Earlier this week, he was named the MIAA freshman of the year.

“He’s a playmaker,” Flott said. “Even if we have a breakdown on the line, he can scramble around and make a play with his arm or his feet. I think he’s done a really good job as a first-year guy.”

Wright and Flott helped the Bearcats win a share of the MIAA title, Northwest’s fifth league title in six years. Its defense has been stingy, too.

The Bearcats are allowing 13.3 points per game, sixth in D-II. They led the nation in scoring defense the previous three seasons.

Grand Valley is ranked 13th in scoring defense, allowing 17 points a game, while quarterback Bart Williams is the school’s leader in career passing yards (12,302) and TD passes (126).

“They’re a talented team,” Cunningham said. “We’ll have to play well up front, stay ahead of the chains. If we can win up front, it will help our chances greatly.”

Saturday’s games

Rocky Mountain (8-3) at Morningside (11-0), noon: This first-round playoff game features two of the NAIA’s best quarterbacks. Morningside’s Trent Solsma has thrown for 4,049 yards and 55 touchdowns while Rocky Mountain’s Jacob Bakken has thrown for 3,325 yards and 35 TDs. Max Gray is a 1,000-yard receiver for the Bears while Morningside’s Connor Niles needs 57 yards to reach the 2,000-yard receiving mark this season. Omaha Burke grad Arnijae Ponder has rushed for 1,139 yards for Morningside, which not only leads the NAIA in total offense (600.6 yards per game) but also leads the NAIA in total defense (222.8).

Dickinson State (8-2) at Northwestern (9-1), 1 p.m.:Northwestern has won three in a row since its lone loss, an eight-point decision to Morningside. Dickinson has won four straight, averaging 40 points during that streak. While Dickinson’s defense is allowing 17.7 points per game, its offense is led by Hayden Gibson, who has thrown for 2,401 yards and 24 touchdowns. Northwestern ranks ninth in the NAIA in total offense, averaging 463 yards a game. The Red Raiders are balanced. Tyson Kooima has thrown for 2,769 yards and 23 touchdowns while Jacob Kalogonis has 1,168 rushing yards. Shane Solberg has become Northwestern’s go-to receiver with 1,295 yards on 77 catches.

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