Dec. 4, 2009

By John Fey
Special To

When Northwest Missouri State University lines up for the kickoff of Saturday’s NCAA Division II football playoff game against California (Pa.) University, it won’t be an unfamiliar experience or setting.
After all, the Bearcats have posted 27 wins in 12 playoff appearances, and they’ve won nine straight postseason home games since 2004. Overall, NWMS is 16-3 in home playoffs.
Add to the mix that coach Mel Tjeerdsma has posted the most wins by a Division II coach in postseason history (27), and you’d think Saturday’s 8:30 (EST) game on CBS College Sports Network will be a leisurely stroll into the championship game.
But had it not been for Tyler Roach’s blocked game-tying extra point with six seconds left to preserve a 21-20 win against top-ranked Central Washington last weekend, the No. 2 Bearcats might not have advanced to their fifth straight national semifinal appearance.

"We’re a good team,” Tjeerdsma told the Maryville Daily Forum. “There’s no doubt about that. But I think we learned some things in the game – just confidence-wise.”
Despite that scare, the deck might appear stacked in favor of NWMS (12-1) when the 22nd-ranked Vulcans venture into Missouri for the first time. Then again, maybe not.
Cal U (11-3) is used to road trips, having defeated West Liberty, 57-35, last weekend. And the Vulcans aren’t strangers to the semifinals as this marks their third straight trip. Saturday’s winner advances to next Saturday’s title game in Florence, Ala., against either Carson-Newman or Grand Valley State.
Under coach John Luckhardt, Cal U has won 52 of its past 61 games dating to 2005 and has won seven of nine playoff games the past three years. On the road, his teams are 16-2 over the past three seasons, although this is the first playoff road semifinal for Cal U.

Luckhardt said his Vulcans face a major challenge on Saturday.

“They win every year and have 11 starters back from last year’s national championship finalists,” Luckhardt told the Valley (Pa.) Independent. “They just reload. We’re trying to get to that level.”
Tjeerdsma and Luckhardt have a combined 433 wins. The last time coaches with two 200-plus wins apiece locked horns in an NCAA football game came in 2009 when Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Mack Brown (Texas) met in the Fiesta Bowl.
Stopping Northwest will be a challenge for the Vulcans. The Bearcats come in with the nation’s third-highest scoring average at 42 points per game. Leading that charge is quarterback Blake Bolles with 3,728 yards of total offense (fifth in the nation) and 38 touchdowns (second).

“Confidence is through the roof right now,” Bolles said.

Bolles’ top target, Jake Soy, leads D-II in catches (23) and yards (1,393).

“They have one of the best passing attacks in the country if not the best,” Luckhardt said.
The Vulcans answer with senior wide receiver A.J. Jackson, who set single-season school records with 94 receptions and 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. He became the fifth player in program history to amass 2,000 career receiving yards during last week’s win.
First-year quarterback Josh Portis leads the Vulcans’ offense and threw five TD passes last weekend, giving him a single-season school record 33. He broke the record set last year by Kevin McCabe. Portis, a graduate student, and McCabe are the only Cal U quarterbacks to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season.

Portis’ 427 rushing yards has Tjeerdsma concerned.

“I think we have to make him beat us with his arm and not let him beat us with his legs,” Tjeerdsma said.
On defense, NWMS is led by linebacker Chad Kilgore, who has 83 tackles – 46 in his past five games. More remarkable is that he didn’t enter the starting lineup until the third week of the season. His 25-yard TD interception last week against Central Washington was the Bearcats’ first score.

“Northwest’s defense will be the best we’ve faced,” Luckhardt said.
Cal U counters with senior defensive end Willie Walker. The four-year starter has 40 tackles (22 solo) with 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks. He and Bearcats junior left guard Brett Grozinger are among the eight national finalists for the Gene Upshaw Award, recognizing the top offensive or defensive lineman in Division II.
Want more defensive standouts? Try Northwest’s Sean Paddock, the school’s all-time sacks leader with 26. Despite missing five games to injury, he leads the team with 6.5 sacks, and his 42 career tackles for loss ties the program record.
The Vulcans are no strangers to playing higher-ranked teams. Saturday night will be the seventh game against a top 25 team this season. They’re a combined 9-4 during the past two seasons against nationally-ranked teams.