Dec. 6, 2009

Sidebar: From Gainesville To California (Pa.)


By John Fey
Special to

MARYVILLE, Mo. -- Northwest Missouri State fans have a tradition of tearing down the goalposts after advancing to the NCAA Division II championship game, regardless of the final score. And they've got it down pat.

For a division-record fifth straight year, the second-ranked Bearcats will head to Florence, Ala., for the championship game thanks to a 56-31 blasting of California (Pa.) University on Saturday night at Bearcat Stadium.

LaRon Council rushed for 216 yards, and quarterback Blake Bolles threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns as Northwest improved to 13-1 heading into Saturday's showdown against Grand Valley State.

"We still know how to win semifinal games," veteran Northwest coach Mel Tjeerdsma said long after most of the 7,122 fans had left the stadium.

Cal U amassed 482 total yards, more than half coming from junior quarterback Josh Portis, but closed the season 11-4.

"We just got outplayed by a better football team," Vulcans coach John Luckhardt said. "I think they found something that worked, and they stayed with it."

What worked for the Bearcats was the 1-2 punch of Bolles throwing and Council running. They combined for 443 of Northwest's 525 total yards.

Bolles doled out passes to seven receivers, taking the heat off top receiver Jake Soy, who still managed four catches --  three for touchdowns. Soy's three TD catches gave him 26 for the year. He ranks third in D-II history.

"He's done just a great job of catching the ball all year," Bolles said.

But for all the success the Bearcats have had reaching the championship game, they're seeking their first title since 1999.

Saturday's game appeared it would be close, with the Vulcans hanging within 14-10 in the waning moments of the first half. But what appeared to be Portis simply taking a knee with 7.5 seconds to go turned into what both coaches called the game-changing play.

Tjeerdsma quickly called time and set up a punt block. And wouldn't you know that's just what Roberto Davis did. Billy Creason scooped up the bouncing ball and raced 15 yards for the score as the clock ran out.

"Coach said, `Let's scoop and score,'" Davis said. "He called the block and let it happen."

Luckhardt took the blame for the bad turn of events.

"I screwed up in the first half by taking a knee," he said. "I get the dunce cap for the punt at the end of the half."

Said the Northwest coach: "The punt block at the half was a huge momentum swing."
The Bearcats outscored Cal U 28-14 in the third quarter to take a 49-24 lead into the fourth, all but guaranteeing another trip to Florence.

Northwest's Adam Vondrak turned in a stellar night defensively with seven tackles --  five unassisted --  and all six of Sean Paddock's tackles were solo efforts.

"We had a big night defensively," Tjeerdsma said. "They got a lot of yards, but we'll move on."

The Vulcans coach was impressed with the blocking that allowed Council to turn in a career-high yardage total.

"They've got a tremendously balanced offense," Luckhardt said. "Obviously, they blocked us pretty darn well."

Council echoed those sentiments.

"They did a tremendous job (of blocking) today," he said. "I'm just proud of all those guys making my last game here go so well."

After the blocked punt, Northwest forced the Vulcans to punt to start the third quarter and needed just five plays to go 44 yards for the score that made it 28-10.

"It was huge," Bolles said of that quick score. "It was a big momentum thing."

Another big play for the Bearcats came after Cal U scored to pull within 28-17 with 8:09 left in the third. Jordan Simmons took the ensuing kickoff and dashed 81 yards, firing up an already stoked Northwest crowd.

Luckhardt didn't mind the rowdy crowd.

"I think it was fantastic for us," he said. "This is the kind of atmosphere you love to be in."