A little over 12 minutes remained in the second quarter when Northwest Missouri State senior quarterback Kyle Zimmerman, a Harlon Hill finalist, left the NCAA Division II semifinal game against Ferris State with an injury.
For Northwest Missouri to continue its quest to repeat as national champions, it needed to rely on junior backup quarterbacks Jonathan Baker and Randy Schmidt to pull the Bearcats out of a 13-7 deficit.
“I felt disappointment for Zimmy,” Baker said. “If you guys knew the work he does behind the scenes, you could tell there was air released from our guys just because it was him and the senior leader he is.
“That doesn’t last long. You got to refocus. Coach Adam Dorrel always talks about next man up. That was the mentality I had going in there, being there for your seniors. Don’t let them down in a game like this.”
Interestingly, Baker grew up in Maryville, Mo., home of Northwest Missouri. His 19-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Shane Williams with 8:48 left in the second quarter put the Bearcats back in front 14-13.
“It is a proud feeling right now, no doubt about it,” Baker said of playing in his hometown. “I can’t help but smile because we are going to Kansas City. There is a sense of pride playing for your home fans, but not just that, it is getting it done for your home team. When you spend 365 days for four years with these guys, you know how much it means to us. This is what you have to do.”
Baker went 6 for 6 in the second quarter and helped Northwest take a 21-13 lead into halftime. For the game, Baker completed 18 of 24 passes for 139 yards and one touchdown.
“I knew from day one coaches and teammates believed in me in that backup role,” Baker said. “They know when I go out there, I can make enough plays along with my teammates to put drives together and put up points. That is what we did.”
When Ferris State closed to 21-20 in the third quarter, Baker was once again instrumental in leading Northwest on an 84-yard touchdown drive to push the Bearcats’ lead back to eight at 28-20.
The drive started with a 28-yard pass from Baker to junior running back Jordan Grove.
“That was huge just to swing the momentum,” Grove said. “It could have been anyone. It just happened to be my play.”
Despite the adversity that struck Northwest in the semifinal game, it was the belief in each other that pulled the Bearcats through. Northwest also lost junior cornerback Marcus Jones and senior wide receiver George Sehl to game-ending injuries in the first half.
“As we say all the time, it is that family aspect,” Grove said. “We stay around all summer and build a bond. We are all brothers out here. We all stick together and believe in each other.
“That obviously showed today when JB stepped up when Kyle got hurt. It is the next-man-up attitude. We all believe in it, and we believe in each other.”
Because of that, Northwest, 14-0 and winners of its last 29 games, will face North Alabama, 11-1, at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Northwest will go for a record-setting sixth national title. North Alabama is looking to win its fourth national title. North Alabama won three straight titles from 1993-95.
No question the 35-20 loss to Northwest Missouri was tough on Ferris State players and coaches Saturday evening. The Bulldogs played with passion trying to make their first-ever appearance in the Division II national championship game.
Less than 20 minutes after the game, senior quarterback Trevor Bermingham, sophomore defensive end Zach Sieler and head coach Tony Annese answered questions in a way that displayed their class. They praised Northwest, made no excuses and remained upbeat about the future of Ferris State football.
“They are a great defense, one of the best that we have seen this year,” said Bermingham, who threw for 164 yards and a touchdown. “It is their physicality as a whole. Upfront, they are pretty physical. Their secondary guys made it hard for our guys to get in their routes. They got a couple of pressures on us. Realistically, we didn’t get to officially settle in and establish what we wanted to do.”
Bermingham helped the Bulldogs go on an exciting playoff run. All season, he was one of the top punters in the country. He was also the backup quarterback. He started the regular season finale and got hot in the playoffs.
In the quarterfinals, Ferris State went on the road and beat undefeated Grand Valley State to earn its matchup with Northwest Missouri. Earlier in the season, Ferris State lost at Grand Valley.
“It has been an incredible ride,” Annese said. “We are blessed to have people who have helped us get to this point. We (coaching staff) have only been here for five years so for us to get into the semifinals with a program that wasn’t exactly in a great place when we took over was good.
“Our SID continually says Ferris State has the second-best record in the last three years behind Northwest Missouri State. I guess that is an honor to be second behind them with what they have done.
“We have won a lot of games in the last three years, 34-5. To be on the field and compete with them, I felt good about that. We were in the ball game. You didn’t see them in too many contests in the films we watched.”
Before Saturday, the closest game Northwest had was a 28-7 victory at Fort Hays State.
“I thought we fought hard and represented our university,” Annese said. “We felt good about our players’ efforts and we thought they represented us very positively.”
North Alabama returns to the national championship game
North Alabama had a two-decade drought of playing in the national championship game. That all changed on Saturday when the Lions went on the road and beat undefeated Shepherd, last year’s runner up, 23-13.
A 17-3 second quarter by North Alabama basically stamped the Lions ticket to Kansas City. North Alabama held Shepherd to three points in the second half.
And now the championship game will be between two storied programs.
North Alabama and Northwest Missouri are tied for the most playoff appearances in Division II history with 21 each. The Bearcats rank first in all-time playoff wins with 46, while North Alabama is second with 35. Former Northwest Missouri head coach Mel Tjeerdsma (now the athletic director at Northwest Missouri) and current North Alabama head coach Bobby Wallace have the most coaching wins in Division II playoff history and they are the only coaches in Division II history to win three national championships.
Current Northwest Missouri head coach Adam Dorrel is attempting to enter the three-national championship club. Dorrel led Northwest to titles in 2013 and 2015.