KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Down two touchdowns to the nation’s top-ranked team, Northwest Missouri State delivered a response fitting of its championship pedigree Saturday.

Quarterback Trevor Adams threw for two touchdowns, James Franklin ran for two more and the defense stepped up with a succession of big second-half plays as the Bearcats defeated Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival Pittsburg State 31-21 in their annual Fall Classic in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

“Our program’s had a lot of big wins . . . and this certainly is a big one,” coach Adam Dorrel said after his team preserved both its league title hopes and run at a ninth consecutive Division II playoff berth. Now 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the MIAA, Northwest might not have been able to afford another loss on either front.

Against Pitt State (5-1), they struggled for a little more than a half with both the Gorillas’ defense and pass-minded offense. They trailed 7-0 at the half, then 14-0 when PSU’s Anthony Abenoja hit Luke Rampy with a 14-yard TD pass on the opening series of the second half.

“We knew we had to respond quick,” Adams said.

Adams did just that, completing the first nine passes he threw in the third quarter. The first five produced Northwest’s first score, a 19-yard touchdown toss to Jordan Simmons that cut the deficit to 14-7. The next offensive series set up a 31-yard field goal by Todd Adolf.

It was the start of a game-turning run of 31 points by the Bearcats.

“Momentum kind of shifted their way,” Pitt State coach Tim Beck said. “We couldn’t get it stopped. Both side of the ball. They were very, very good on both sides, and we didn’t respond very well.”

The Gorillas did stir at one critical point, moving to the Northwest 17-yard line in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. There, on fourth-on-1, Beck opted against a field goal and ran 6-3, 238-pound Mandell Dixon into the middle of Bearcats’ line. There, he was met and stopped for no gain by linebacker Matt Massey and nose guard Travis Chappelear.

The stops kept coming. Travis Manning picked off a pass and returned it 14 yards to the Pitt State 35, and Adams and the offense capitalized. On a fourth-and-4 call, receiver John Hinchey beat one PSU defender on an inside slant and Adams hit him perfect. Hinchey leapfrogged another defensive back en route to a 29-yard touchdown that put Northwest up 17-14.

The Gorillas’ next possession ended on a sack by Northwest linebacker Eric Reimer. Franklin followed with the first of his TD runs, this one three yards around left end, to make it 24-14 with 5:06 remaining.

Safety Nate DeJong came up with another interception, and Franklin added a clinching 14-yard scoring run just 21 seconds later.

Franklin finished with 115 yards rushing on 20 carries. Adams threw for a total of 192 yards, completing 17 of 30 passes and overcoming a couple of first-half interceptions.

Dorrel, who came up with signature come-from-behind wins against Missouri Western and Midwestern State in last year’s playoffs, now has another in his second season as coach. He pointed to Hinchey, Massey, DeJong and the rest of the Bearcats’ veterans.

“In a game like that, in my opinion, it’s not about play-calling. I believe that,” Dorrel said. “I believe it’s about guys, a group of seniors, who willed it to happen.

“They believed in their coaches, and they believed in each other. It was awesome to hear them say at halftime when we were coming out, ‘We’ve got to keep playing for each other.’ And they played for each other today.”