NCAA Division-II Finals: Rams v. Bearcats

Shepherd Rams Northwest Missouri State BearcatsNCAA Division-II Football Playoffs

No. 5 Shepherd Rams (13-0)
No. 1 Northwest Missouri Bearcats (14-0)

The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats are looking for their fifth NCAA Division-II football National Championship, which would tie them for the most all-time. They are also seeking their second championship in three seasons. The Bearcats ended the regular season as the No. 1 team in Division-II and have been a formidable force each and every week.

This is the Shepherd Rams first appearance in the title game. It has been an historic run for Shepherd on many levels, and they have proven that they earned their spot in the championship game.

How They Got Here:

The Shepherd Rams completed an undefeated season, going 10-0 to win the Mountain East Conference. The Rams boasted a powerful offense that scored at least 41-points in every game but one. In the final three games of the regular season they bowled over their opponents to the tune of a 137-44 combined score.

Shepherd earned a first round bye in the NCAA Division-II football playoffs, and took on Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the second round. This was a close affair that saw the Rams win 17-13. Wide receiver Billy Brown led the way with 11-catches for 159-yards and a score, and Isaiah Ross made 7-tackles, recorded a sack and blocked a kick.

In Round 3, Shepherd defeated N0. 10 Slippery Rock 28-16. The Rock scored first, but then the Rams responded with 25 unanswered points. Brown grabbed a 74-yard touchdown pass from QB Jeff Ziemba and Allen Cross scored twice on the ground to give Shepherd the lead. The Rams QB finished 15-26 for 255-yards and 2-touchdowns, and Cross gained 82-yards to go along with his two scores.

Last week Shepherd won an exciting battle with Grand Valley State, 34-32, to advance to the finals. The Rams led the entire way, taking a 7-0 lead on a 25-yard pass from Connor Jessop to Billy Brown. Cross would add two touchdown runs, both long gainers, one of 55-yards and the other of 36. A 29-yard interception return for a touchdown by CJ Davis seemed to put the game out of reach at 34-19, but Grand Valley scored two touchdowns in the span of a 3:26 to pull within two. A failed two-point conversion gave the Rams the two-point win.

Jessop finished 15-20 for 173-yards and 2-touchdown passes. Brown made 9-catches for 132-yards and 2 scores, and Cross gained 157-yards on just 16-carries. He also scored twice.

The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats won the Mid-American Conference after posting a perfect 11-0 record during the regular season. The Bearcats dominated their opponents, with only two contests being decided by fewer than 14-points. In their final two games of the season Northwest Missouri State won by a combined score of 93-23.

The Bearcats also had a first round bye before taking on No. 11 Humboldt State. NWMSU scored the first 47-points of the game on route to a dominating 54-7 victory. The defense was absolutely smothering of the Humboldt offense, holding them to just 48-yards of total offense, sacking the Jacks QB five times and intercepting two passes. Wide out Shawn Bane made 7-catches for 134-yards and a touchdown.

In Round 3, the Bearcats defeated No. 18 Emporia State 38-17. NWMSU took at 17-0 lead early on. Brady Bolles’ two-yard pass to Jordan Grove made it 10-0 and Cameron Wilcox extended the lead with a two-yard run for a touchdown. Bolles finished with 329-yards passing and 3-touchdowns, and Jacob Vollstedt was a beast on defense, recording 18-tackles and 1.5-sacks.

Last weekend the Bearcats defeated West Georgia 38-23. NWMSU jumped out to the 17-0 lead before the Wolves got two field goals to pull within 11. Bolles seven-yard touchdown run made it 24-6 and it looked like this game was going to be a blow out, but West Georgia had no quit in them. They got two touchdowns and field goal to pull within one with a little more than 10 minutes left in the contest. Northwest Missouri State was not going to give this one away, however. A 64-yard touchdown pass by Bolles to George Sehl was followed by a 61-yard interception return for a touchdown by Bryce Enyard to seal the game.

Team Comparison

Rankings: (National Rankings in Each Category Are in Parenthesis)

Northwest Missouri State Bearcats
Offense: Passing: 287.5 (24) Rushing: 150.6 (105) Total Offense: 438.1 (43) Points Per Game: 41.9 (8)
Defense: Passing: 166.7 (20) Rushing: 66.4 (1) Total Defense: 233.1 (1) Points Allowed Per Game: 12.7 (1)

Shepherd Rams
Offense: Passing: 278.9 (34) Rushing: 138.1 (114) Total Offense: 416.9 (71) Points Per Game: 39.8 (15)
Defense: Passing: 207.3 (70) Rushing: 91.1 (8) Total Defense: 298.4 (12) Points Allowed Per Game: 17.7 (11)

Note: The Bearcats players are listed first in each comparison

Quarterbacks: Brady Bolles vs. Connor Jessop, Jeff Ziemba

Bolles has been on fire the last two games and has been a key piece to the Bearcats success. The NWMSU QB has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 3,748-yards and 29-touchdowns. He is incredibly smart with the football in his hands and his quick release makes it hard to disrupt his game.

The Rams can play either Jeff Ziemba or Connor Jessup and have success. Ziemba was hurt last week, but Jessop came in a performed exceptionally well in his place. Ziemba has completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 3,278-yards and 29 TDs. He is a great decision maker, who has only thrown 4-interceptions this season.

Normally, losing a quarterback with this kind of skill would be crushing, but Jessop is an outstanding backup. He has only thrown 28-passes this season, but has completed 20 of them and has 5-touchdowns vs. no interceptions. His two touchdown performance last weekend shows he is capable of leading this offense with excellence.

Advantage: Northwest Missouri State

Running Backs: Phil Jackson vs. Allen Cross, Jabre Lolley

Jackson is a solid back who makes it difficult for teams to play five defensive backs to try to shut down the Bearcats passing attack. He has gained 842-yards and 14 scores on 170-carries, a 5.0 per carry average. The running back has good speed, and excellent vision. He knows how to evade tackles and is tough to bring down.

Cross has been having exceptional post-season run only adding to an outstanding season for the Rams running back. He has rushed for 1,032-yards and 10-scores with a 5.0 per carry average as well. Cross is quick and is elusive to try to contain.

Lolley adds another dimension to the running attack. He leads the team with 14-touchdowns and has 707-yards rushing to boot. He is a load to try to tackle and near the goal line Lolley is incredibly difficult to stop.

Advantage: Shepherd

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Shawn Bane, Jordan Grove, George Sehl, Shane Williams, TJ Schieber vs. Dalton Boyd, Billy Brown, Tony Squirewell, Jamie Deason

Bane is just a freshman, but has already established himself as one of the best wide outs in Division-II. He has 1,143-yards receiving and 8 TDs, plus an impressive 15.0 yards per catch average. Grove is second on the team in touchdowns with seven, and both Williams (513) and Sehl (517) have over 500-yards receiving. Sehl has 7 TD catches as well. This is a tough group to try to corral, especially with how well Bolles is playing.

Brown has been a force in the playoffs, and is simply impossible to shut down. He is second in the nation in receiving yards with 1,397 and has 9-touchdowns. The junior is fast and has great hands. Squirewell and Boyd add great depth, and make it difficult to focus too much attention on Brown. Both have over 550-yards receiving and have combined for 10-touchdowns.

Advantage: Even

Offensive Line: Ryan Huff, Dylan Morris, Shane Smith, Daniel Kempf, Chase Sherman vs. Lavonte Hights, Zach Buffkin, Khalil Proctor, Levi Lloyd, Jake Kingston

Shephed starts two sophomores and a freshman on their offensive line, so they are a bit inexperienced, but they are an outstanding group that has size and quickness. Each member of the group weighs at least 290-pounds, with Proctor being the biggest at 321. This is a well-coached group that knows how to protect the quarterback and make lanes in the running game.

Northwest Missouri State has one of the best offensive lines in the country. This is an experienced group that has a lot of time together, so they are always in sync. The five are very gifted athletically, have great technique and good size. They are a nasty group that dominates from start to finish.

Advantage: Northwest Missouri State

Defensive Line: Trist Patterson, Brandon Yost, Collin Bevins, Cass Weitl vs. Shaneil Jenkins, Tatah Ndeh, Myles Humphrey, Isaiah Ross

Blevins leads the Bearcats in sacks with 11.5 and he has a motor that just doesn’t quit. The same can also be said of Yost, who is second on the team in tackles (71) and adds 7.5-sacks. Patterson and Weitl add eight more sacks and it is easy to see why this group is one of the best in the country.

Shepherd can also lay claim to having one of the best groups in the nation. Jenkins is every bit as resilient and nasty as Blevins, leading the Rams in sacks with 12.5. Ross and Humphrey can also get after the quarterback and play the run very well. Ross is second with 6.5-sacks and Humphrey follows closely behind with five. The matchup between them and the Bearcats offensive line should be a fun one.

Advantage: Even

Linebackers: Brock Sherman, Jarrod Bishop, Jacob Vollstedt vs. Kevin Robinson, Jaylen Johnson, Cam Reynolds

Vollstedt is one of the best linebackers in the country and can simply do it all. He always has his hat in the play, leading the Bearcats in tackles with 86 and is second on the team with 11-sacks. He also has an interception and five pass defenses/breakups. Sherman and Bishop are solid and have great instincts. They do all the small things right to allow Vollstedt to be more active in other ways.

Robinson is Shepherd’s leading tackler and he is a flat out ball-hawk. The linebacker has 79-tackles and adds a sack and two interceptions. Of his 79-tackles, 64 have been solo, proving that he has the skill and tenacity to take on a ball carrier on his own. Johnson and Reynolds work with Robinson well to make a quality group.

Advantage: Northwest Missouri State

Defensive Backs: Edward Richey, Kevin Berg, Marcus Jones, Bryce Enyard, Jack Young vs. Octavius Thomas, Tre Sullivan, Adam Coles, CJ Davis

The secondary of NWMSU is nothing but a group of thieves. Berg has eight picks and has defended or broken up 16 other pass attempts. He covers well and also is able to support on the run. Richey and Young each have 4-interceptions and Enyard has three. Combined they make it incredibly hard to throw against the Bearcats.

CJ Davis is an outstanding corner, whose 29-yard pick clinched the Rams’ ticket to the championship. Coles leads the team with 5-interceptions, and opponents clearly would prefer not to throw his way. Add three picks by Sullivan and it is easy to see why this is such an outstanding secondary. Thomas is third on the team on the team in tackles.

Advantage: Even

Special Teams:

The Bearcats have a solid but not spectacular return game, but Simon Mathiesen is a quality kicker. He has hit 23-28 field goal attempts, including a 46-yarder. From inside the 40 he is 20-22.

Davis has done a great job returning kickoffs, averaging nearly 30-yards per return and he has taken one all the back for a touchdown. Ruan Venter is averaging 41.1 yards per punt, and Ryan Earls made 18-23 field goals with a long of 41.

Advantage: Even

Coaches: Adam Dorrel vs. Monte Cater

Coach Dorrel has quickly established himself as one of the best young coaches in the college ranks. This is his fifth season at NWMSU and he already has 60 wins in just 68 games. The Bearcats have been to the playoffs every season with him as their head coach and he has a title in 2013.

Coach Monte Carter has created quite an impressive program at Shepherd. In his 29th season at the school he has a record of 253-113-2, which includes seven trips to the NCAA Division-II playoffs. This is his first trip to the finals.

Advantage: Even

Outlook: The Shepherd Rams have battled hard and earned their place in the title game. The loss of Ziemba hurts, but Jessop has proven that he can lead this team with great success. Still, the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats are the best team in the country for a reason. They have it all and their defense is very hard to move the ball against. Expect this to be a close game early on, but not stay that way for long. Take Northwest Missouri State, 38-17.

By Robert Pannier