Many times I have traveled to Braly Municipal
Stadium in Florence, AL to the national championship game. I would usually catch
myself saying the same thing to people on each one of those trips
"I bet this would be a really neat
atmosphere if North Alabama were playing in the game."
Since winning the three straight national titles
from 1993-95 on their home turf, the Lions had not been able to get over the
hump and get back to play another national championship game despite being
tantalizingly close so many times:
In 2003, UNA lost 29-22 at North Dakota in the
In 2005 it was a 25-24 home loss to Northwest
Missouri in the semifinals.
In 2006, the unbeaten Lions lost a shocker in the
second round of the playoffs to rival Delta State.
In 2008, another semifinal loss to Northwest
In 2013, the final season that UNA could have
played a championship game at home, the Lions lost a 42-39 shootout to Lenoir-Rhyne
in the regional final. LRU went on to the championship game.
So it seems ironic to me that UNA finally gets in
the big game after all these years and as a reward gets to play it on what
amounts to the opposition*s home turf. Northwest Missouri had around 15,000 of
its fans at Children*s Mercy Park in Kansas City last year and I think everyone
is expecting another big pro-Bearcat crowd this Saturday. The Lions will be
getting a dose of what their fans dished out during the mid-90*s three-peat.
Despite cold weather in the forecast (mid teens and windy at kickoff) I expect
that it will be a tremendous atmosphere on Saturday at the national championship
-North Alabama*s superior athleticism on defense
was on full display Saturday. Jeff Ziemba completed just 11 of 28 passes for 112
yards and receiver Billy Brown was limited to just two catches for 17 yards. The
Lions did not put a ton of pressure on Ziemba, but it did not seem to matter as
there were not many open passing lanes.
-UNA managed just a field goal in the second
half, but the Lions moved the ball enough to maintain an advantage in field
position. The last five Shepherd drives started at their own 20, 17, 11, 1 and
-Shepherd running back Brand Hlavach ran the ball
10 times for 43 yards and caught a 10-yard pass on Shepherd*s game opening
touchdown drive. But Hlavach finished the game with just 24 carries as the UNA
defense would not allow the Rams to extend drives. Shepherd was just three of 16
on third down on Saturday.
-Ferris State sophomore defensive end Zach Sieler
is the real deal. His strip sack of Kyle Zimmerman set up FSU deep in Bearcat
territory in the second quarter, which the Bulldogs capitalized on to take a
13-7 lead. Another big hit on Zimmerman a few plays later knocked the Bearcat
senior out of the game.
-The FSU offense had some success at times, but
just had too many negative plays and penalties. FSU was flagged nine times and
nine of the Bulldogs’ 59 offensive plays ended in a loss of yardage. It’s
tough to beat a good team when the offense is always in long yardage situations.
-A ton of credit needs to go to the Northwest
coaches and players for overcoming adversity since this was the first game all
year that they really faced any. In addition to Zimmerman, defensive back Marcus
Jones, receiver George Sehl and defensive end Collin Bevins all left the game
due to injuries as well. Northwest was already playing without standout receiver
Shawn Bane, who has missed the playoffs with an injury. Many young players were
asked to step up and make plays and they certainly came through.
National Championship Game
North Alabama (11-1) versus Northwest Missouri (14-0)
TV: ESPN2 at 4:00 PM Eastern on Saturday
This is pretty much a dream matchup between two
of the most prominent programs in D2 history. Both teams are in the playoffs for
a D2 record 21st time this season. NWMSU is the all-time leader in playoff
victories while UNA is second. The Bearcats will be going for a sixth national
championship and second in a row. UNA is trying to win a fourth national
championship. Another interesting factor is that this is likely to be the last
high stakes meeting between these two programs. UNA just announced last week
that it is moving to D-I after the 2018 season.
Any football team that is still playing at this
time of the year has faced some adversity with injuries. UNA has had to shuffle
the offensive line a bit and standout corner Levi Fell has missed all playoff
games with an injury.
But, as I mentioned earlier, the injury situation
for Northwest could be a major factor in this game. If Zimmerman can’t play it
means that the Bearcats would have to turn to Jonathan Baker and Randy Schmidt
to handle the quarterback duties. Baker is the passing threat of the two while
Schmidt is a good runner. Those two rose to the occasion when called upon last
week, but they will be facing a much better defense and be playing on a bigger
stage in this game. Bevins’ play at defensive end is the key to how the
Bearcats operate on defense so it will be interesting to see if he is effective
Keys to the game for Northwest Missouri:
-Don’t let Jacob Tucker run wild. The UNA
quarterback is very good running the ball on designed plays and especially
deadly when pass plays break down. I would imagine that the Bearcat defense will
employ the use of a spy.
-Run the football effectively. With the injuries
to Zimmerman and the wide receivers, the Bearcats are playing with fire by going
to the air too often. Northwest needs to be patient offensively and try to wear
down the Lions up front.
-Win the battle in the trenches. I think the
Bearcats are the more physical team up front on both sides of the ball. With the
weather conditions as they are Northwest will want to try to control the game
with their big guys up front.
Keys to the game for North Alabama:
-Catch the football. I’m not sure if it was due
to the cold weather, but UNA receivers had a tough time catching the ball last
week. Even though it is projected to be even colder on Saturday, the Lions have
to catch the ball and make plays in the passing game when given an opportunity.
-Win the special teams battle. Both teams have
good punters and kickers, but UNA is much more explosive in the return game with
Philbert Martial being extremely dangerous on both kick and punt returns. If the
Lions can gain some hidden yards in the return game or even break one for a
score, it could tip the game in their favor.
-Play a clean game. No turnovers or silly
penalties. I think the Lions will be right there in the fourth quarter if they
can do those two things.
The last time we had a national championship game
this enticing was in 2006, when unbeatens Northwest Missouri and Grand Valley
met. It appeared coming into that game that the Bearcats were the favorite, but
they were undone by some critical turnovers and a great individual effort by
Laker quarterback Cullen Finnerty, who ran for 115 yards and accounted for 340
of GVSU’s 348 yards of offense.
This game has a very similar feel to it. Again, I
feel the Bearcats are the favorite, even with the injury concerns. I think they
are better up front on both sides of the ball, with the extreme cold and
pro-Northwest crowd being other factors in their favor. However, if Tucker can
carry UNA offensively and the Lions win the turnover battle, they can win this
football game. It should be a great one. Northwest Missouri 20 North Alabama 16
[Q] Do you think the weather being bad on
Saturday could potentially have the NCAA looking at a different site for future
[A] I do think that poor weather could definitely
have an impact on deciding where to play the game in the future. The first two
years the weather was good but it looks like this season could be close to a
worst case scenario. The game was awarded to Kansas City through 2017, so there
will be one more year at the current venue.
The bottom line is there is not really an ideal
venue to hold the game. There are a lot of advantages to playing it in KC, but
being so far north makes bad weather a constant threat. Going back to Florence
is out with UNA moving to D-I. With West Florida now having a football program I
could see Pensacola being a good venue but the Argonauts are playing their games
in a minor league baseball stadium for now. It will be interesting to see what
transpires next year when the host city is up for bids again.
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