Grab the popcorn. This weekend’s Fort Hays State/ Northwest Missouri State football game has more storylines than the average Twitter feed.
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This is essentially the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association title game. The winner will have the decisive upper hand heading into the final week of the regular season. Fort Hays enters the game undefeated, a perfect 9-0, and No. 6 in DII football. Northwest Missouri State is 8-1, sitting at No. 8 overall.
Northwest Missouri State is the cream of the crop in DII football. When a team makes headlines for losing for the first time in nearly three years, you know just how good a team they are. Though it’s 38-game streak came to an end, nothing has changed in Maryville, Missouri. Until someone else hoists the trophy, the Bearcats are the team to beat.
"Our coaches do a good job of having us focus on going 1-0 each week," junior corner back Anthony Lane said. "It’s never fun losing but I know my teammates will bounce back and I need to do what I can to help them. We are now more focused than ever."
Rich Wright took over as head coach this season. Much as it was when he was defensive coordinator, defense is the name of the game for Northwest Missouri State. Just look at some of these numbers.
- 8.7 — Points allowed per game (No. 1 in DII).
- 205.2 — Yards allowed per game (No. 1 in DII).
- 50 — Rushing yards per game (No. 1 in DII).
- 1.69 — Rushing yards per carry (No. 1 in DII).
- 155.2 — Passing yards per game (No. 7 in DII).
- 4.11 — Sacks per game (No. 2 in DII).
Those numbers put them on pace to be better than both the 2015 and 2016 national championship teams, which speaks volumes to how much trust this unit has in each other.
"It’s always next man up for us," Lane said. "I have faith in the guy next to me and I know he has faith in me. We just go and try to do our 1/11th and we know if we do that, we will have success. We know on defense we have to set the tone and we take a lot of pride in that."
Lane brings another dimension to the Bearcats stout rushing defense, leading the team with three interceptions. He knows they will have to be at their best facing Fort Hays State's powerful, multi-dimensional offense.
"We’ve been going full time on watching these guys," Lane said. "They played us really tough last year at their place and they’re playing really well right now. We are watching a lot of film. They have a couple of really good wide receivers. We have to come out ready to go."
Trying to take the Bearcats' third straight outright MIAA title (fifth straight overall) away from them are the Fort Hays Tigers.
This is a season 100 years in the making for Fort Hays State. The last time it began a season 7-0 was 1917, its best start in program history. The Tigers have surpassed that mark, and hope to continue against the Bearcats.
“I felt like we had so much talent coming back and with the new guys joining," senior running back Kenneth Iheme said. "I’ve always had confidence in the coaches and what they’ve done through the years. When it was time to put everything together, I knew we could have a special group with everything that we had and finally putting it in motion.”
Fort Hays State has plenty of weapons on offense, but Iheme has emerged as the star. He had 1,189 yards rushing in his three years at Fort Hays State entering 2017. This year he is the leading the MIAA in rushing, already with 1,029 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He’s also caught 32 passes for another 302 yards and two more touchdowns, becoming one of the most dangerous all-purpose backs in DII football.
“Experience," Iheme credits his big turnaround. "Being able to play all those years in the system, I learned from players I shared time with. Being able to put it all together and step up for my team, it just really happened this year.”
It hasn't been Iheme all alone, however. Monterio Burchfield has become one of the most reliable wide receivers in the game, totaling 823 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Jacob Mezera already has eclipsed 2,000 yards and is closing in on 20 touchdown passes.
“It’s like you got to pick your poison, whether you want to stop the run game or the pass game," Iheme said of the offense. "We have so many weapons across the board. It’s so fun being able to play in the system and watch my teammates make big plays and do their thing every Saturday.”
This weekend, he will have his work cut out for him. That vaunted Barcats defense thrives on making running backs pay every time they touch the ball.
“I’ve definitely been watching film on them," Iheme said. "Trying to find what schemes they do. I just need to try to be physical. They were No. 1 for a reason, they had that win streak for a reason. They are a very good defense. It’s just about watching film and figuring out what to do to beat them.”
MORE: Regional rankings
Fort Hays State is currently No. 1 in Super Region 3. It happens to be arguably the toughest region, filtering in teams from the MIAA, Great Lakes Valley Conference, Great American Conference and Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Six of the current top seven teams that will advance to the DII football playoffs are nationally ranked, while three of the remaining four have been in and out of the Top 25 all season. That gives this team and extra boost.
“Our confidence is extremely high," Iheme said. "We’ve been through a lot of battles, a lot of tough games. At this point we fell like no matter what adversity comes out way, we’ll be able to take care of business.”
Of course a win is top priotity for both the Tigers and Iheme this weekend. Win or lose, however, nothing will stop the amazing ride Iheme and his fellow seniors have been on this season.
“It’s everything I could want, plus more," Iheme said of his farewell season. "I’m definitely enjoying everything a little bit more if I was freshman or sophomore. It’s a dream come true. I couldn’t ask for a single thing more than what we accomplished this season. There’s a lot more work to be done but so far this is the best senior year I could ask for. It’s an honor to be a part of this team.”