FLORENCE, Ala. – It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or the most heartbreaking.
Northwest Missouri State and Lenoir-Rhyne will face off here Saturday for the Division II national championship, and with so much on the line, the smallest of things can mean the difference between the best Christmas present ever or a lump of coal.
A botched snap.
A missed handoff or field goal.
Getting a first-down conversion on third and really, really long.
Avoiding the rush and buying just a little more time.
Northwest Missouri State has been down this road before, eight times in all to the championship game, with DII titles to its credit in 1998, '99 and 2009. After rebuilding the program from a state of disarray when he arrived on campus six years ago, head coach Mike Houston has guided Lenoir-Rhyne to its very first appearance in the DII final.
Who comes out on top, the undefeated 14-0 Bearcats of Northwest Missouri State or the 13-1 Lenoir-Rhyne Bears? That’s anybody’s guess. Northwest Missouri State is currently ranked second in the American Football Coaches Association poll, while Lenoir-Rhyne comes in at lucky number 13.
The teams feature vastly different approaches on offense. Northwest Missouri State has averaged an astounding 45.4 points a game, fifth best in the nation, and evens out its attack in the air passing and on the ground rushing.
“They’re extremely balanced on offense,” Houston said. “They have a big group of personnel that run very, very well. I’m not just talking about the skill position players. Their offensive line moves as well as any group we’ve seen. They have the ability to be a great running team and they also have the ability to be a great passing team. They are not a one-dimensional offense.”
Lenoir-Rhyne, on the other hand, runs a triple-option offense that sticks almost exclusively to the ground. At 5,320 yards total rushing, the Bears are just 31 yards away from DII’s all time single-season record.
Almost anyone can take the ball and run with it in Houston’s scheme. Although the team leads the country with an average of 377.9 yards rushing per game, no one runner has reached the 1,000-yard plateau.
Northwest Missouri State, however, has allowed a total of more than 100 yards rushing in just six games this year. Missouri Southern – which ran, you guessed it, the option – gained 221 yards on 55 carries. Only three times in the entire game did a team attempt a pass.
Northwest Missouri State won the Oct. 26 contest 43-7.
“The first thing you’ve got to do when you play a team like that is you just have to challenge your defensive line,” Adam Dorrel, Northwest Missouri State’s head coach said. “Your defensive line has to play well or you don’t have a chance. That’s where we’re going to start.
“I do believe it’s important to mix up your looks. I think the worst thing you can do with an option team is stay in one defense the entire day and let them know exactly where you’re lining up. Last, you’ve got to tackle really well and just be super physical at the line of scrimmage.”
Lenoir-Rhyne’s three starting quarterbacks threw for a combined 773 yards all year, an average of a little more than 55 yards a game. Still, stacking the defensive line and ignoring the pass would be a mistake, according to Houston.
Three Bears with nine or more receptions – Grayson Wells, Jarrod Spears and Greg Baker – averaged 18 yards a catch. All had catches of 42 yards or more.
“The thing is, even though we may not throw it much, you’d better defend it,” he said. “If they don’t do a good job being disciplined in their pass defense, you’ll look up and they’ll give us an easy one. People do have to do a great job of trying to stack the box against us in the run game.
“At the same time, they have to give an account for us in the passing game. It is difficult, because we run multiple formations. We have four and five guys on the field at a time who are great receivers. All of our backs catch the ball very, very well. Even though we are a run-heavy team, it’s by design.”
Both teams are big on heart, and Lenoir-Rhyne’s has never been more on display than in its Dec. 14 semi-final victory against West Chester. Rain and temperatures in the 30s left players from both team a cold and muddy mess on the Bears’ home turf in Hickory, N.C.
Josh Justice, who started the year as the team’s third-string quarterback, rushed for 175 yards, three touchdowns and three two-point conversions in Lenoir-Rhyne’s 42-14 victory.
“We had some hypothermia issues and different things going on, guys really struggling with their hands and feet,” Houston said. “We went out and did not turn the ball over one time. We talked at halftime about this game was going to come down to which team was tougher mentally and physically. It was going to be a game where you had to make the conscious decision, ‘I am not going to quit. I am going to win this football game.’”
Tough, hard-nosed football. That’s the Lenoir-Rhyne way.
“We’re a very physical group,” Houston said. “On defense, we’re going to stop the run. On offense, we’re going to run the football. When we line up to go against each other [in practice], it’s a pretty tough battle.
“Our guys are used to getting in there and pounding it out, having an attitude of playing with their chin out over their toes, playing downhill football and being very aggressive. That’s the way we coach, and that’s the way they’re wired.”
In the end, Dorrel has a gut feeling that the game will come down to those little things and getting the right breaks at the right time.
“The first thing we have to do is win the turnover battle,” Dorrel said. “When you’re playing an option team, you get very few possessions. I think we’re averaging around 70-some plays a game, and they’re only allowing you to run about 50. Ball security is going to be huge. We have to take care of the football. I think we have to find a way to win on special teams. Field position’s going to be a premium.
“We’ve got to play to win. In my mind, a lot of times people go wrong when they play too tight and guys try to do too much. We always talk about you’re one in 11 and believing in the guy next to you. We’ve got to do that again Saturday.”