Nov. 27, 2009

By Matt Rybaltowski
Special to

Hulking 6-foot, 264-pound Central Washington middle linebacker Prince Hall believes in the philosophy that a dominant defense will always stifle an explosive offense like the New York Giants did in a Super Bowl XXV victory over the Buffalo Bills nearly two decades ago.

When the top-ranked Wildcats (12-0) take on No. 2 Northwest Missouri State (11-1) in Saturday’s NCAA Division II quarterfinals, Hall’s assertion will be tested. Central Washington boasts the nation’s top defense and has held opponents under double digits in its last four games. The Bearcats, meanwhile, come to Ellensburg, Wash. with the second-best offense in Division II and have scored at least 45 points seven times.  

“I think the story will be our defense, our lining up and competing against Northwest Missouri’s offense,” Central Washington coach Blaine Bennett said. “We need to keep the run game under control and we can’t give up any big plays.”

Other comparisons can be made between the Bearcats and the NFL’s Bills. Northwest Missouri State has lost in the last four national championships, a feat Buffalo accomplished in four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Unlike the Bills, though, the Wildcats have kept the games close in each appearance, losing the four by a combined 19 points.  

“Losing the last four years is tough,” Northwest Missouri State quarterback Blake Bolles said. “You try to bury it, but it’s still in the back of your mind. It has a lot to do with how you go into a game especially in the playoffs.”

Central Washington has never been to the title game and has only been in Division II for about a decade. The Wildcats shared an NAIA Division II championship with Findlay (OH) in 1995, but have never made it beyond the quarterfinals since joining the NCAA in 1999. Saturday’s match-up will be the first between the schools.
The game within the game might be contested between Hall, a transfer from the University of Alabama and Northwest Missouri State senior running back LaRon Council. Last week, Council rushed for 87 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-10 win over Abilene Christian. It was impressive considering that the Wildcats entered the game with the top rush defense in the country (46.2 yards per game).  

The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year is a shifty back, who is rarely brought down at the line of scrimmage. Hall said while Council is smaller than most backs he faced in the SEC, the Harlon Hill Trophy finalist is able to elude defenders by maintaining a low center of gravity.
“He (Council) is kind of an old-fashioned, between-the-tackles kind of runner,” Hall said. “He (also) does a pretty good job of running through tackles.”

Throughout the season, defenses have tried to slow Council by jamming eight defenders in the box and daring Bolles to beat them. The gamble has left wide receiver Jake Soy in frequent one-on-one coverage and the Bearcats have made them pay. Soy has 22 touchdowns this, an MIAA record.

“It’s tough as far as running the ball but when teams start doing that we start passing the ball,” Council said. “Our coaching staff has just done a great job of not trying to force the run.”

Bennett compared Soy favorably with his team’s top wideout Johnny Spevak. The Great Northwest Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year owns school records in four receiving categories and has deceptive speed, according to his coach.

“They both have good speed, great body control and a confidence that they will catch everything thrown in that area,” Bennett said.

Spevak will be the main target for Wildcat quarterback Cole Morgan. With his team trailing 21-0 at the half against Western Oregon on Nov. 7, Bennett pulled then starter Ryan Robertson for the senior. Morgan responded by leading the team to a 23-21 victory and has started every game since.

It will be difficult for the Wildcats to advance to their first ever semifinals with a similar slow start. Both coaches are expecting a tight contest.

“I think it’s going to be a great football game,” Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma said. “I’m not worried about going on the road, (but) they’re playing extremely well right now.”