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Back in the fall of 2006, the big debate in Division II was whether there should be two separate football championships - one at the current 36 scholarship level and a second at a lower amount, somewhere between 18 and 24 equivalencies. With a vote looming on the potential split at the January 2007 NCAA convention, I was asked to write a feature article on the subject that appeared in the national championship game program.

I interviewed several people for the article and most of the opinions were as you would expect: coaches and administrators from the fully funded conferences wanted a single championship. Those from the lesser funded conferences were in favor of having two championships.

The one notable exception to opinions falling along “party lines” was Shepherd Head Coach Monte Cater. He told me that the goal for his program was to compete nationally at the highest level of D2 football. He said Division II needed to stay unified and that Shepherd had no interest in playing down at a lower scholarship level.

I remember having two thoughts after speaking to Cater: One, I had tremendous respect for the fact that he wanted his program competing with the best in D2, despite some obstacles. And two, he might be a little bit off his rocker for feeling that way.

At that time, perhaps no other program in D2 would have benefited more from playing for national championships in a lower scholarship division. Shepherd was the dominant team in what was the WVIAC and the only team from that league that had ever won a D2 playoff game.

But despite the regular season success, the Rams never had much success in the playoffs: They went 11-0 in the regular season in 2005 but lost their first playoff game. In 2006, they repeated the 11-0 regular season and shut out an amazing six opponents, but still could not advance out of the region. Back then it seemed that the chances of Shepherd actually having a legitimate shot of competing for national titles were just this side of slim and none.

But Cater obviously stayed the course and continued to build his program. While the Rams did break through and reach the semifinals in 2010, there were many bumps along the way. The 2007, 2012 and 2013 teams also reached the postseason, but all three of those teams suffered double digit losses. The 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2014 teams did not even reach the playoffs.

That is why this season has been such a huge accomplishment for Cater and Shepherd football. Of course the Rams are big underdogs against Northwest Missouri State and no one is giving them much of a shot. But obviously the Shepherd program beat some long odds just to get to this point. Can the Rams shock everyone by beating the Bearcats on Saturday?

Semifinal Observations

-Northwest Missouri State and West Georgia were very comparable teams and the total plays and yardage in the game would seem to prove that. But the difference was that Northwest played mistake free football, with just one turnover and no penalties. UWG, on the other hand, had a fumble and a botched punt in their own territory that led directly to Bearcat points and the Wolves also threw a pick six near the end of the game. Plus UWG failed to score a touchdown on three trips inside the red zone.

-The Shepherd-Grand Valley State game was wild to say the least. There were big momentum swings, key injuries suffered on both sides and each team had a defensive score. But at the end of the day what sticks out to me as the deciding factor was the turnover differential (4 to 1 in favor of Shepherd) and the fact that Shepherd significantly out gained the Lakers on the ground (191 to 66).

-Although it was a frustrating loss for Grand Valley, the program came a long way this season towards getting back amongst the elite in D2. The Lakers will return 17 of 22 starters next season and graduate just ten seniors. The Lakers would have to be on the short list of national championship favorites for next season.

National Championship Game

Shepherd (13-0) versus Northwest Missouri State (14-0)

Location: Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS

Where to watch: ESPN2 at 4:00 Eastern

Weather forecast: 51 degrees and Sunny

The Bearcats are making their ninth national championship appearance and will be going for a record-tying fifth national championship; NWMSU also won it all in 1998, 1999, 2009 and 2013. In addition to championship game experience, further bolstering the Bearcats* prospects is that this will be a virtual home game for them. Sporting Park is only about 90 minutes from the Bearcat campus and Northwest has a large alumni presence in the Kansas City area. A sellout crowd of over 18,000 with almost all cheering for the Bearcats is definitely a possibility.

One big factor to pay attention to in this game is the fact that it appears Shepherd will be without starting quarterback Jeff Ziemba, who suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder last week. Connor Jessop came off the bench and played very well against Grand Valley, completing 15 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores. I was impressed with his composure and his ability last week, but it still hurts the Rams to some degree being without Ziemba.

Shepherd players to watch:

81 WR Billy Brown: 83 receptions, 1397 yards, nine touchdowns

31 RB Allen Cross: 196 carries, 989 yards, ten touchdowns

9 DE Shaneil Jenkins: 39 tackles, 12.5 sacks

32 LB James Gupton: 61 tackles

27 DB/KR CJ Davis: 57 tackles, 989 return yards

74 RT Lavonte Hights: All-MEC and All-Region

 

Keys to the game for Shepherd:

-Stay in in it early. As an underdog playing in front of a partisan Northwest crowd, the Rams have to play well early in the game. Falling behind by multiple scores in the first quarter would make winning the game an impossible task. If I am the Shepherd coaching staff, I want to do whatever it takes to sustain possession and score the first time I touch the football.

-Find some way to run the football. This will be easier said than done. The Northwest defense allows just 66 yards per game on the ground and the Rams are built more to throw it than run it. If the Bearcats can make the Rams completely one dimensional it will be a really long day for Shepherd. I do not think Shepherd can run the ball consistently against Northwest, but if the Rams can make a couple of chunk plays on the ground like they did last week, it could make a big difference in the game.

-Win the special teams and turnover battles. As a big underdog, these two categories could serve as equalizers. The Rams need to make something happen on special teams and probably be at least plus two in the turnover category to have a chance.

Northwest Missouri players to watch:

10 QB Brady Bolles: 3748 passing yards, 29 TD passes

13 WR/KR Shawn Bane: 1143 receiving yards, 864 return yards, 8 TDs

11 DE Collin Bevins: 49 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks

99 DT Brandon Yost: 71 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks

43 LB Jacob Vollstedt: 110 tackles, 15 TFL, 11 sacks

6 S Kevin Berg: 53 tackles, 8 interceptions

 

Keys to the game for Northwest Missouri:

-Stop Billy Brown. The Shepherd receiver is a big time playmaker and the Bearcat defense must account for him at all times. He is the one player Shepherd has offensively that can cause matchup problems for the Northwest defense.

-Dominate defensively. In my opinion, Northwest has by far the best defense in D2. It all starts up front as defensive linemen Bevins and Yost are two of the best in the country and they have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses all season long. An incredible ten members of the Northwest defense were named to the All-Conference team so there is talent everywhere on this side of the ball. 

-Stay patient offensively. The Rams are good enough defensively to cause some problems for Northwest. As long as the Bearcats stay patient and allow their defense to set up scoring opportunities they will be fine.

Prediction:

There are many factors pointing to a big Northwest victory. The Bearcats have more talent, will be playing in front of a large “home” crowd, and the Rams will be without their starting quarterback. I do think the Shepherd defense is good enough to keep them in it to a degree, but the Bearcats will just be too much. Northwest Missouri 34 Shepherd 17

Contact

Feel free to contact me at with any comments or criticisms or if you have a question you would like answered in the Mailbag.

 
         
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