MANKATO, Minn. – It felt so familiar. So fated.
Northwest Missouri State looked poised to add to a long, rich history of improbable playoff comebacks Saturday. The Bearcats – minus their top running back – dug out of a 21-point hole against the top-seeded team in their NCAA super region, blocking one punt, then another, scoring four second-half touchdowns and forcing overtime at Minnesota State Mankato.
But they couldn't finish the Mavericks off.
Quarterback Trevor Adams threw his fourth interception of the day in the end zone in the second OT, and Mankato kicker Sam Brockshus nailed a 27-yard field goal into the wind to win it 38-35. It denied Northwest a ninth consecutive berth in the Division II quarterfinals.
Unbeaten MSU moved on to a showdown with Missouri Western here next Saturday.
“I think I'm still maybe a little bit shocked,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said some 30 minutes after the game. “Because there was no doubt in my mind. I thought we were going to win that game. Our kids always fight hard, and they've always done that when we're in a hole.”
“It felt,” linebacker Jayron Robinson said, “like everything was starting to turn and go our way. … I mean, we thought we had it.”
Robinson certainly put the 'Cats (10-3) in position. The sophomore from Kansas City crashed through the line for both of the blocked punts, the first setting up his team's first touchdown in the opening moments of the second half and the second leading to another score – on Jordan Simmons' 4-yard run – that pulled Northwest into a 28-28 tie with 7:11 left to play.
A little more than 2.5 minutes later, cornerback Brian Dixon came up with his fifth interception of the season. Momentum hadn't merely swung. It was a tidal wave.
Dixon returned the pick 38 yards to the MSU 43, but the Bearcats gave five of them back on a sideline interference penalty. Two plays later, they drew a holding penalty. And they wound up punting.
The defense forced another turnover, safety Nate DeJong stripping the ball from Mankato quarterback Jon Wolf after a three-yard run with 47 seconds left. But Adams was sacked twice, and the 'Cats punted it away again and waited for overtime.
Mankato (12-0) ran for a touchdown to start the first OT. Adams answered with a 25-yard, over-the-middle scoring pass to Simmons.
Northwest's heroics, and luck, ran out there.
“I'm not satisfied,” Simmons said, “but I'm not disappointed in my team. We battled. We played hard. We could have easily laid down at halftime but our guys, starting with the seniors, just fight through adversity.
“We've been talking about (dealing with) adversity all year. I feel like we did a good job in that second half, coming out battling and fighting. Unfortunately, it just didn't go our way.”
He deserved better. Simmons wore a dark cast on the left forearm that he broke in practice just 11 days earlier. He underwent surgery, had six screws implanted in the arm, and sat out Northwest's first-round playoff rout of Harding.
He was back on the field Saturday, carrying the ball 17 times for 96 yards and the late TD, catching four passes for 38 yards and a TD and finishing with 171 all-purpose yards.
Afterward, Simmons said the arm “hurt like a (son of a gun).” Encumbered by the cast, he needed help getting out of his pads.
“No toughness, no championship. That's been our motto,” he said. “… If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out swinging. And that's why I suited up this week.”
Asked about the senior's gutty performance, Dorrel had to pause to compose himself. “He's been a tough kid for five years for our program,” he said. “I'm just really proud of him, where he's come from.
“I've been coaching for 15 years. I don't know how many kids are going to (undergo that) surgery and be able to play today. It would have been easy for him to sit out. I thought it would have been easy for him – he took some shots today – to check out of the game. And he didn't.
“My goal now is he's going to try to get in an NFL camp (and) if he can't, come back and finish up his degree. And he's going to have to tell me no; I'm trying to get him to go into coaching. He'd be a great coach. He'd be a great mentor for kids. And he'd be a great recruiter.”
The Bearcats played without another key player, running back James Franklin, who injured a hip early in the victory over Harding and didn't suit up against Mankato.
They nonetheless became just the fourth team this season to run for as many as 80 yards against MSU's second-ranked defense, managing 188. Their problem was turnovers and penalty flags.
Adams threw three of his interceptions in the first half, and MSU converted two of them into touchdowns in building a 21-0 lead. Six of the eight penalties called against the Bearcats came in those first two quarters.
“We were killing ourselves,” Simmons said.
Adams settled down after halftime, however, completing 13 of 16 passes for 96 yards and three TDs before the final interception. Besides capitalizing on the blocked punts, he and the offense put together 63- and 75-yard touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters.
Adams was looking for backup running back Kohlman Adema-Schulte on his final throw, but Mankato cornerback Justin Otto slid in front of Adema-Schulte and snatched it away.
“Our guys played an outstanding first half, and I would have to have finished things off that same way in the second half,” said Mankato's acting head coach, Aaron Keen. “But when you're playing a great football team, a great football program like Northwest, you expect a battle. And we certainly got one.
“I'm very proud of the way our guys hung with it and came through in the end.”
The victory was only the Mavericks' third in the D-II playoffs and their first at home. They ran the table this season in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference – the league that's also home to Minnesota Duluth, which fell 57-55 to Missouri Western in a triple-overtime thriller in the playoffs' opening round – and now draw the Griffons at home.